It’s going to be the largest ever one-time release of federal prisoners.
The Justice Department will release approximately 6,000 inmates early, in order to reduce overcrowding and grant clemency to many of the drug offenders who received especially harsh sentences over the past three decades.
The Bureau of Prisons will manage the release, which will affect prisons all over the United States, starting October 30 and lasting through November 2. The majority of the freed individuals will first go to halfway houses or home confinement before they’re put on supervised release.
The move follows a decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission — an independent agency charged with reviewing punishment policies for federal crimes — that reduced the prison term guidelines for future drug offenders last year and then made the change retroactive.
The commission’s action is not related to a similar initiative by President Obama to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative that has resulted in 89 inmates being released early.
It’s estimated that the panel’s change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release. The 6,000 figure, which has not been reported previously, is only the first step in that process.
“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, an advocacy group that supports sentencing reform.
The Sentencing Commission predicts that an additional 8,550 inmates will be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016. These inmate releases are part of a broad shift in the nation’s approach to criminal justice and drug sentencing. In addition to the commission’s action, the Justice Department has directed its prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences. Exceptions would be made for those who are connected to gangs or large-scale drug organizations.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s unanimous vote on the reduction came after two public hearings that featured testimony by former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., federal judges, federal public defenders, state and local law enforcement officials, and sentencing advocates. The panel also received more than 80,000 public comment letters, and the overwhelming majority of those were in favor of the change.
In the absence of action by Congress to disapprove the change to the sentencing guidelines, it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the unprecedented release of inmates.