Pubdate: Wed, 07 Oct 2015
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2015 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Michael S. Schmidt, New York Times
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)


WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is preparing to release about 
6,000 inmates from federal prisons starting at the end of this month, 
as part of an effort to ease overcrowding and roll back the penalties 
given to nonviolent drug dealers in the 1980s and 1990s, federal law 
enforcement officials said.

About a third of the inmates are undocumented immigrants who will be 
deported. Because many of those inmates were convicted of crimes that 
are significant legal offenses, President Obama is unlikely to be 
criticized as sharply for their release by those who have objected to 
past deportation decisions by the administration.

The release will be one the largest discharges of inmates from 
federal prisons in American history. It coincides with an 
intensifying bipartisan effort to ease the mass incarcerations that 
followed decades of tough sentencing for drug offenses, such as 
dealing crack cocaine, and that have taken a particularly harsh toll 
on minorities.

"Today's announcement is nothing short of thrilling because it 
carries justice," said Jesselyn McCurdy, a senior legislative counsel 
at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Far too many people have lost 
years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed 
drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these 
misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the 
people so wronged will get their freedom back."

But news of the early releases also raised some concerns among law 
enforcement officials across the country who are grappling with an 
increase in homicides. Their fear is that many of the freed convicts 
will be unable to get jobs and will return to crime.

Ronald E. Teachman, who was police chief in South Bend, Ind., until 
last Wednesday, said that what inmates were convicted of and what 
they actually did were rarely the same.

He said that prisoners who were released after receiving job skills 
and other assimilation training often succeeded. But that rarely 
occurs - even in the federal system, he said.

"People come out of prison hardened and angry and more likely to 
offend," said Teachman, now an executive with ShotSpotter, a company 
that promotes a system for detecting gunfire.

In April 2014, the US Sentencing Commission reduced the penalties for 
many nonviolent drug crimes. That summer it said those guidelines 
could be applied retroactively to many prisoners. Eric H. Holder Jr., 
then attorney general, had lobbied the sentencing commission to make 
the changes.

Under the new guidelines, prisoners can ask federal judges to 
reassess their sentences. Along with examining the inmates' behavior 
in prison, the judges look at whether they are likely to act out 
violently if they are released.

As part of an effort to give the federal Bureau of Prisons time to 
prepare for an influx of convicts entering probation and re-entry 
programs, the releases were delayed. They will now take place from 
Oct. 30 to Nov. 2.

"The Sentencing Commission's actions - which create modest reductions 
for drug offenders - is a step toward these necessary reforms," said 
Sally Q. Yates, deputy attorney general. "Even with the Sentencing 
Commission's reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial 
prison sentences."

The United States has a quarter of the world's prison population, and 
Republican and Democratic lawmakers agree that prison spending, which 
accounts for a third of the Justice Department's budget, needs to be reduced.

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators proposed a sweeping 
overhaul aimed at reducing mandatory minimums and winning early 
release for those serving sentences disproportionate to their crimes.

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

Immigrant advocates have accused the administration of breaking up 
families by deporting immigrants who did little wrong other than 
coming to the country illegally.

This criticism was fueled by a record number of deportations in 
Obama's first term - although that pace has slowed considerably in 
the last year.

"The drug war has devastated families and communities, and it is time 
for the healing to begin," said Anthony Papa, a spokesman at the Drug 
Policy Alliance, who spent 12 years behind bars on a mandatory 
minimum drug sentence.

This summer, Republican candidates for president, particularly Donald 
Trump, seized on the killing of a woman in San Francisco by a man who 
had been deported to Mexico several times and was recently freed from 
a federal prison.

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, on Tuesday declined to 
comment on the release of the prisoners, but expressed optimism that 
both parties would continue to support criminal justice changes.

"We're pleased to see that many Republicans consider this to be a 
priority, too," Earnest said. "At this point, I don't think there's a 
significant level of concern that any rhetoric on the campaign trail 
could sabotage the important bipartisan work that's currently ongoing 
on Capitol Hill. And I hope I'm right about that."

Papa said, "It warms my heart to hear that 6,000 people will be coming home."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom