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 administration.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.
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.
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.