Pubdate: Sun, 11 Oct 2015
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (PA)
Copyright: 2015 PG Publishing Co., Inc.


New Guidelines Will Thin Costly Bloated Prisons

Six thousand drug offenders will be released from federal prisons 
between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, their terms cut short by new sentencing 
guidelines in the United States.

Their release reflects not just the revised, retroactive guidelines 
enacted by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, but the nation's growing 
concern about the number of citizens it jails. About one out of every 
100 Americans is incarcerated, a third for drug crimes. Freeing 
eligible nonviolent drug offenders is a bold and necessary first step 
in restoring a criminal-justice system burdened by Draconian 
sentencing of the 1980s and 1990s.

Although America has just under 5 percent of the world's population, 
it has about 22 percent of the world's inmates, in part, because of 
aggressive drug prosecution and "three strikes" laws adopted by 23 
states and the federal government in the 1990s. (Pennsylvania's was 
enacted in 1995.) Since 1980, the federal prison population has 
spiked by 800 percent, and prisons are nearly 40 percent over capacity.

The sentences come at great cost, not only to prisoners, but also to 
taxpayers. Prisons consume a third of the Justice Department's $27 
billion budget.

Under relaxed sentencing guidelines issued last year, about 46,000 of 
the nation's 100,000 drug offenders are eligible for release if they 
meet certain conditions, including good behavior in prison. Each case 
will be reviewed by a federal judge, and those released early (an 
average of two years taken off the sentence) will go to halfway 
houses or be on supervised home release. The estimated one-third who 
are not U.S. citizens will be deported.

Naysayers fear that the mass release, expected to include another 
8,500 next year, will result in increased crime and homelessness if 
the former inmates are unable to find work or housing. But recidivism 
is a risk whenever any inmate is released; more than three-quarters 
of inmates are arrested again within five years of their release, 
according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

As prison doors swing open, doors to post-prison education and 
employment must open, too.
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