Pubdate: Wed, 07 Oct 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Sari Horwitz
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


Biggest One-Time Release of U.S. Inmates

The Justice Department is set to release about 6,000 inmates early 
from prison - the largest one-time release of federal prisoners - in 
an effort to reduce overcrowding and provide relief to drug offenders 
who received harsh sentences over the past three decades, according 
to U.S. officials.

The inmates from federal prisons nationwide will be set free by the 
department's Bureau of Prisons between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. 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, officials said.

The early releases follow action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission - 
an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal 
crimes-that reduced the potential punishment for future drug 
offenders last year and then made that change retroactive.

The commission's action is separate from an effort by President Obama 
to grant clemency to certain nonviolent drug offenders, an initiative 
that has resulted in the early release of 89 inmates.

The panel estimated that its 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 
the first tranche 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 estimated that an additional 8,550 inmates 
would be eligible for release between this Nov. 1 and Nov. 1, 2016.

The releases are part of a shift in the nation's approach to criminal 
justice and drug sentencing that has been driven by a bipartisan 
consensus that mass incarceration has failed and should be reversed.

Along with the commission's action, 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.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction 
last year after holding two public hearings in which members heard 
testimony from then-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, with the overwhelming majority 
favoring the change.

Holder supported the change, but he proposed more restrictive 
criteria that would exclude people who had used weapons or had 
significant criminal histories. But the Sentencing Commission decided 
to leave the decisions to individual judges.

Congress did not act to disapprove the change to the sentencing 
guidelines, so it became effective on Nov. 1, 2014. The commission 
then gave the Justice Department a year to prepare for the huge 
release of inmates.

The policy change is referred to "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 8 1/2 
years instead of 10 1/2, according to a Justice Department official.

"Even with the Sentencing Commission's reductions, drug offenders 
will have served substantial prison sentences," Deputy Attorney 
General Sally Yates said. "Moreover, these reductions are not 
automatic. Under the commission's directive, federal judges are 
required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to 
reduce an inmate's sentence."

In each case, inmates must petition a judge, who decides whether to 
grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 
70 sentence reductions per week, Justice Department officials said. 
Some of the inmates already have been sent to halfway houses.

In some cases, federal judges have denied inmates' requests for early 
release. For example, U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth recently 
denied requests from two top associates of Rayful Edmond III, one of 
the District's most notorious drug kingpins.

Federal prosecutors did not oppose a request by defense lawyers to 
have the associates, Melvin D. Butler and James Antonio Jones, 
released early in November. But last month, Lamberth denied the 
request, which would have cut about two years from each man's 
projected 281/2-year sentence.

"The court struggles to understand how the government could condone 
the release of Butler and Jones, each convicted of highlevel, 
sophisticated and violent drug-trafficking offenses," Lamberth wrote. 
The Edmond group imported as much as 1,700 pounds of Colombian 
cocaine a month into the city in the 1980s, according to court papers.

Critics, including some federal prosecutors, judges and police 
officials, have raised concerns that allowing so many inmates to be 
released at the same time could cause crime to increase.

But Justice officials pointed to the large number of inmates who will 
be deported and to a study last year that found that the recidivism 
rate for offenders who were released early after changes in 
crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines in 2007 was not significantly 
different from the rate for offenders who completed their sentences.

"Prison officials and probation officers are working hard to ensure 
that returning offenders are adequately supervised and monitored," Yates said.

Federal prison costs represent about one-third of the Justice 
Department's $27 billion budget. The U.S. population has grown by 
about a third since 1980, but the federal prison population has 
increased by about 800 percent and federal prisons are operating at 
nearly 40 percent over capacity, Justice officials said.

Last week, a group of senators introduced a bipartisan criminal 
justice reform bill, the first such legislation in decades. Although 
some advocates say it doesn't go far enough, the measure, which is 
supported by a coalition that includes the Koch brothers and the 
American Civil Liberties Union, would shorten the length of 
mandatory-minimum drug sentences that were part of the tough on-crime 
laws passed during the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

If passed by Congress and signed by Obama, the reforms would apply 
retroactively, allowing inmates who were previously incarcerated 
under mandatory minimums an opportunity for release.

"It's a remarkable moment," Price said. "Over the past several years, 
the tone of the discussion about incarceration has changed 
dramatically. We have come to the realization that our punitive 
approach to drug crimes is not working and has produced significant injustices."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom