In largest one-time release, 6,000 inmates will walk out of federal prison

by Josie Duffy

In an unprecedented move, 6,000 inmates will soon be released from federal prisons in what the Washington Post calls history’s “largest one-time release of federal prisoners.” This change is due to last year’s decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lower sentencing guidelines for drug crimes and apply the change retroactively.

President Obama meets with prisoners during his visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma on July 16. – Photo: Vice Media
President Obama meets with prisoners during his visit to a federal prison in Oklahoma on July 16. – Photo: Vice Media

Remarkably, this release is only the beginning. The Sentencing Commission has stated that about 8,550 inmates will qualify for release over the next year and has estimated that their sentencing reforms could mean the release of 46,000 of the 100,000 federal prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes. According to the Post:

“The policy change is referred to as ‘Drugs Minus Two.’ Federal sentencing guidelines rely on a numeric system based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group.

“The sentencing panel’s change decreased the value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels, regardless of the type of drug or the amount.

“An average of about two years is being shaved off eligible prisoners’ sentences under the change. Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served eight and a half years instead of 10 and a half[.]”

6,000 inmates will soon be released from federal prisons in what the Washington Post calls history’s “largest one-time release of federal prisoners.”

The inmates will be released between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, 2015, but they aren’t home free quite yet. The Post reports, “About two thirds of them will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release. About one third are foreign citizens who will be quickly deported[.]”

These are not automatic releases: In order to be released, inmates are required to petition a judge to reevaluate their sentences. Those seen as a threat to public safety are denied re-sentencing.

While the Sentencing Commission is a judicial body and not part of the executive nor congressional branch, these efforts are in line with much of the rhetoric expressed by the Obama administration and many in Congress. “This development reflects efforts underway in Congress and by the Obama administration to reform federal drug sentencing laws, as well as a broader effort to adapt federal policy to overwhelming public support for reforming drug laws,” stated the Drug Policy Alliance.

In Congress, bipartisan legislation has been introduced that would reduce mandatory minimums and improve prisoner re-entry programs, as well as almost eliminate solitary confinement for juveniles in federal facilities. The Department of Justice has also called for reform.

“This development reflects efforts underway in Congress and by the Obama administration to reform federal drug sentencing laws, as well as a broader effort to adapt federal policy to overwhelming public support for reforming drug laws,” stated the Drug Policy Alliance.

The Post reports that “the Justice Department has instructed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.” And President Obama has granted clemency to 89 people serving time for drug offenses.

The Sentencing Commission’s decision to change the sentencing guidelines and make those changes retroactive has a huge impact. Such a decision is not only economically sound, it is rooted in mercy and justice.

Josie Duffy is an attorney and a staff writer for Daily Kos, where this story first appeared. She can be reached on Twitter @_johelen.