The Justice Department will grant early release to 6,000 inmates incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses in attempt to reduce prison overcrowding and enact the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s motion to reduce punishments for both future and past drug offenders.
Between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, the selected and approved 6,000 inmates will be released from federal prisons across the nation. Two-thirds of those released will enter halfway houses; the other third will be comprised of foreign citizens who will be deported.
The Commission estimated that about 46,000 of the country’s 100,000 drug offenders could eventually qualify for early release, an additional 8,550 of which will be released by Nov. 1 of next year.
As of now, about one-third of the Justice Department’s budget of $27 billion goes to federal prisons. Since 1980, the nation’s population has grown about 30%, while the federal prison population has increased by 800%, in large part due to the utter failure of the War on Drugs. Justice officials say federal prisons are currently operating at about 40% over capacity.
Last year the Commission passed the “Drugs Minus Two” policy change by unanimous vote. As of now, federal drug sentences are decided by a numeric system based on factors like the defendant’s criminal history, if a gun was involved, or if the defendant was a major player in a drug organization. The policy change requires the numerical value assigned to each defendant to be reduced by two points, averaging in a two-year decrease in drug-related prison sentences.
“These reductions are not automatic,” Dep. Attorney General Sally Yates told the Washington Post. “Under the Commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.”
This is especially important in the case of drug cartels, gangs, and black market players. For example, a Washington D.C. judge recently denied the requests for early release of two inmates who are known top associates of the most notorious drug kingpin in D.C. and convicted of “high-level, sophisticated, and violent drug-trafficking offenses.”
Some critics of the policy worry that too many criminals will be released at once, but when those being released are mostly non-violent offenders, many of which have already served years or decades of ridiculously tough-on-crime, relic sentences of the 1980s who will be monitored closely in controlled halfway houses, isn’t this logical solution worth the risk? Our country’s penal system is a worldwide joke—overcrowded, undermanaged, and often times un-rehabilitative. Let’s embrace the fact that federal commissions are shaking off the ignorance of the ’80s and making proactive moves to solve this dysfunctional stain on our country.
“It’s a remarkable moment,” Mary Price of Families Against Mandatory Minimums told the Post. “Over the past several years, the tone of the discussion about incarceration has changed dramatically. We have come to the realization that our punitive approach to drug crimes is not working and has produced significant injustices.”
Let’s hope the judges deciding who is granted early release take into account the defendant’s drug of choice, and that they have enough sense to look beyond marijuana’s Schedule I classification and realize that of all the non-violent drug offenses, smoking, possessing, and even distributing marijuana is by far the non-violent-est.