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


WASHINGTON - The Justice Department is preparing to release roughly 
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 harsh 
penalties given to nonviolent drug dealers in the 1980s and '90s, 
according to federal law enforcement officials.

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

The release will be one of 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 - like dealing 
crack cocaine - which have taken a particularly harsh toll on 
minority communities.

"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."

While news of the early releases was widely praised, it 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 the police chief in South Bend, Ind., 
until last Wednesday, said inmates were not always convicted of all 
the crimes they had committed.

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

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

In April 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission reduced the 
penalties for many nonviolent drug crimes. That summer it said those 
guidelines could be applied retroactively to many prisoners serving 
long drug sentences. Eric H. Holder Jr., the attorney general at the 
time, 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, the 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. Given the bipartisan support, the 
legislation has a stronger chance of being passed than many other 
bills Congress is considering.

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 Mr. Obama's first term - although 
that pace has slowed considerably in the last year.

This summer, Republican candidates for president, particularly Donald 
J. Trump, seized on the killing of a woman on a San Francisco pier 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," Mr. 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."

Anthony Papa, a spokesman at the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports 
the relaxation of certain drug sentencing laws, said, "It warms my 
heart to hear that 6,000 people will be coming home."

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

Michael D. Shear and Carl Hulse contributed reporting.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom