Pubdate: Wed, 07 Oct 2015
Source: Seattle Times (WA)
Copyright: 2015 The Seattle Times Company
Note: The New York Times and Tribune Washington bureau
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


Nonviolent Drug Crimes

Mass Release May Be One of Largest in U.S. History

WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is preparing to release roughly 
6,000 inmates from federal prison as part of an effort to ease 
overcrowding and roll back the harsh penalties given to nonviolent 
drug dealers in the 1980s and 1990s, according to federal 
law-enforcement officials.

The release, scheduled to occur from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, will be one 
of the largest one-time discharges of inmates from federal prisons in 
American history, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of 
anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing 
matters that had not been publicly announced by the Justice Department.

The Bureau of Prisons is arranging for many of the inmates to 
initially move into halfway houses, one official said.

In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission created guidelines that 
reduced the penalties for many nonviolent drug crimes and made some 
of those changes retroactive. Officials said at the time that the 
move applied to at least 50,000 federal inmates sentenced under the 
previous guidelines.

The new guidelines were issued amid increasing support for an 
overhaul of sentencing. The United States has a quarter of the 
world's prison population, and Republicans and Democrats alike agree 
that prison spending, which accounts for a third of the Justice 
Department's budget, needs to be reduced. News of the prison release 
was first reported by The Washington Post.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are considering other ways to scale back 
the numbers of people who are facing lengthy stays in federal prison 
because of nonviolent drug crimes.

A bipartisan group of powerful senators last week proposed a broad 
overhaul of the system for imposing mandatory minimum sentences, 
urged on by President Obama and activist groups that ranged from the 
far right to the far left.

The changes would be retroactive if the legislation is enacted, and 
lawmakers estimated that up to 6,500 prisoners - many of them charged 
with offenses related to crack cocaine - could qualify for 
resentencing under the changes.

In the coming year, an additional 8,550 prisoners would be eligible 
for release, according to Sentencing Commission spokesman Matt 
Osterrieder, though he added that not all of them would be approved.

When the mass release was first proposed, some federal prosecutors 
and even then Attorney General Eric Holder preferred a much narrower approach.

Under a compromise, the sentencing commission agreed to delay the 
releases until late this year, permitting a more thorough vetting of 
each case. Congress, where sentencing reform has had bipartisan 
support, allowed the changes to go into effect.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department was solidly behind the releases.

"The Department of Justice strongly supports sentencing reform for 
low-level, nonviolent drug offenders," Deputy Attorney General Sally 
Yates said. "The Sentencing Commission's actions - which create 
modest reductions for drug offenders - is a step toward these 
necessary reforms."

But officials said the releases are not limited to nonviolent 
offenders, though each release is individually approved by a federal 
judge, who must make a determination that the person is not a threat 
to public safety. So far, Osterrieder said, judges have approved 
about 75 percent of requests for release.

Studies of previous but smaller mass releases in 2007, when sentences 
were adjusted for crack cocaine, showed that the recidivism rate for 
those released early was about the same as those released at the 
completion of their sentences, about 40 percent, Osterrieder said.

The Obama administration and a bipartisan coalition in Congress have 
been working on reforms to lower the U.S. incarceration rate, one of 
the highest in the world.

But Obama's 89 clemencies to date constitute a small fraction of the 
roughly 8,000 clemency petitions pending from prisoners. His efforts 
have, so far, fallen short of expectations set last April, when the 
Justice Department announced the most ambitious federal clemency 
program in 40 years and invited lawyers across the country to help 
tens of thousands of federal drug offenders apply.

Justice Department spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that roughly 
one-third of those released will be deported because they are not 
U.S. citizens. Most of the others will be sent to halfway houses or 
supervised home-release, officials said.

Washington state does not have a federal prison; the nearest one is 
in Sheridan, Ore.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom