Why the Justice Department will soon release 6,000 prisoners

Federal authorities will release thousands of nonviolent drug offenders early in a bid to relieve the prison's overcrowded populations amid changing views about mass incarceration.

Jessica J. Trevino/Detroit Free Press/AP
A prisoner walks with a deputy through one of the tunnels at Wayne County Jail that connect to Frank Murphy Hall of Justice in Detroit on July 31, 2015.

As many as 6,000 federal prisoners will be allowed to walk free early starting later this month, an order that ranks as “the largest ever one-time release of federal prisoners.”

This decision, which came Tuesday from the Department of Justice and was first reported by The Washington Post, comes as lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum are increasingly zeroing in on prison overcrowding and mass incarceration nationwide.

Since the 1980s, the United States’ inmate population has swelled to 2.2 million, now composing a quarter of the world’s total number of prisoners, The Christian Science Monitor previously reported.

A bipartisan plan last week was introduced to Congress that would prevent or reduce mandatory sentences for nonviolent offenders, and allow 6,500 prisoners to appeal their sentences.

These 6,000 prisoners are the first wave of low-level drug offenders to whom the US Sentencing Commission is showing leniency. The panel’s decision last year marked a broader – and separate – extension of President Obama’s decision to grant clemency to 46 such prisoners this July, according to the Post.

“These men and women were not hardened criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years,” the president had then said. “I believe that at its heart, America is a nation of second chances. And I believe these folks deserve their second chance.”

Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates also acknowledged the “substantial prison sentences” already served by drug offenders in her remarks on Tuesday.

“Moreover,” she emphasized, “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.”

While the early-release order may provide some relief to the country’s crowded federal prison system, the path to criminal justice reform is more complex than most would imagine, writes the Post’s Rebecca U. Thorpe:

First, there is a common misperception perpetuated by mainstream politicians who want to reform the criminal justice system that most prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders. This idea is false.

The second reason is more disturbing. Mass incarceration solved two major problems for a country whose collapsing industrial base left the poor and working classes without jobs.

Some local communities have started taking matters into their own hands, hoping to break the cycle of this historically “tough-on-crime” mentality, reports the Monitor. A new breed of community courts emerging around the country, for example, now deals with the “relatively minor, always nonviolent” offenses common in many urban neighborhoods.

The latest order will free inmates across the country between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2. They will then have to pass through halfway houses or home confinement before being granted supervised release. Eventually, the policy could allow 46,000 of the country’s estimated 100,000 drug offenders to qualify for early release, according to the Post.

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