Pubdate: Tue, 27 Oct 2015
Source: Alaska Dispatch News (AK)
Copyright: 2015 Alaska Dispatch Publishing
Note: Anchorage Daily News until July '14
Author: Jerzy Shedlock


Starting next week, federal prison inmates from Alaska facing an 
average conviction of a decade behind bars for drug offenses will be 
released early.

The sentence reductions resulted from revisions by an independent 
judicial body; its new policy could mean shorter imprisonment for 
tens of thousands of inmates nationwide.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the penalties for all future 
federal drug defendants in April 2014. Several months later, the 
commission granted those reductions to drug offenders already in 
prison, but its decision to retroactively apply the changes 
stipulated that no drug offender could be released until a year after 
the changes came into effect on Nov. 1, 2014.

Here in Alaska, 80 prisoners so far have qualified for reduced 
sentences under changes made by the commission, but the process is continuing.

"There have been some more reductions granted" since the commission's 
latest report, said Rich Curtner, federal public defender for the 
District of Alaska. "I get a few new ones each week. There are still 
some people who may be eligible who haven't filed motions themselves, 
so we may reach out to them."

The state's federal prosecutors and public defenders started 
reviewing cases last November involving drug offenders who were 
potentially eligible for early release thanks to the changes in 
sentencing guidelines.

The Bureau of Prisons will release 6,000 federal prisoners who were 
granted reductions starting in November, but the total number could 
eventually reach about 46,000, according to the commission.

Ninety-five Alaska inmates applied to have their sentences reduced. 
Fifteen such cases were denied, according to the commission's data.

The number of Alaska inmates getting reduced sentences pales in 
comparison to Texas, the state with the highest number of reductions 
granted. A total of 2,501 prisoners from the Lone Star State are 
getting early releases. Florida ranks second, with 863 prisoners 
granted reductions. Alaska ranks 39th, ahead of Colorado, Michigan 
and Nevada, among other states.

Nationally, most denials for reductions were due to inmates not 
meeting certain criteria -- their crimes involved firearms or were 
seen as more serious because of the use of force or violence. Judges 
cited "protection of the public" 119 times in denials. Inmates' 
behavior in prison was used to deny 63 cases.

Prosecutors can also object to prisoners seeking early releases 
through the revisions. However, Karen Loeffler, U.S. attorney in 
Alaska, said her office did not object to the majority of reductions 
sought and presented by the public defender's office.

"Most of the ones we objected to are simply because they don't 
qualify under the rules," Loeffler said. "It's a small handful that 
we've objected to, in essence, for a public safety purpose. Either 
they've had violent conduct in prison or the underlying offense was 
horrific and violent, and we believe there's a hazard to the community."

"It's single digits, a very small number," she said.

National media outlets have reported thousands of inmates will be 
released at once, but Curtner said the detail of the "largest 
one-time release" of prisoners isn't entirely accurate. Some of the 
Alaska inmates counted in the most recent data have additional time 
to serve even after the reductions take effect, he said.

The sentencing commission reported that the average original sentence 
for the 80 Alaska inmates granted reductions was about 10 1/2 years, 
or 125 months. The average reduction was 20 months, according to the data.

Alaska has no federal prison facilities, so prisoners convicted of 
federal crimes are housed out of state. Some of the inmates granted 
early release have already returned north this month, filling halfway 
house beds in preparation for re-entering the state's communities full-time.

Curtner noted that the dozens of prisoners coming home to Alaska 
saves the Bureau of Prisons millions. The bureau's latest yearly cost 
estimate per inmate was $29,291. A single year without the Alaska 
inmates housed in federal prisons saves $2.3 million.

But the benefits go beyond saving money, Curtner said.

"The value of life for not only the clients but their families is 
much more important than the monetary value," he said. "There are 
still bills floating in Congress about mandatory minimums, and 
there's a coalition right now that is looking at reforming laws, 
because everybody recognizes how much money and time people are 
spending on incarceration."

Pushes to reform criminal justice are coming from both sides of 
American politics, with arguments for more support and job 
opportunities for ex-cons and increasing rhetoric that reforms are 
fiscally responsible.

But there are others who argue rushed attempts to reduce prison 
populations could have dire consequences on public safety.

In response to such arguments, Loeffler said the community plays an 
integral part in the success of released prisoners. Help from 
supporting services will ensure they have the needed resources, she said.

"Every person who comes back and does not commit more crimes because 
they have a job and housing is a plus for the community in two ways: 
they're contributing members and they're not committing more crimes," 
Loeffler said.

Curtner, who has spent much of his career defending those accused of 
serious crimes, said he's never personally felt reducing prison 
populations is a cause for concern.

"These people (who recently got reductions) are non-violent drug 
offenders who have completed treatment in prison, and they don't pose 
much of a risk," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom