Breaking News: Federal Bureau of Prisons to Release 6,000 Prisoners
by Derek Gilna
In a dramatic announcement on October 6, 2015, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) stated it is preparing to release up to 6,000 prisoners by the end of the month or early November 2015, who will be sent to halfway houses or placed on home confinement. After the U.S. Sentencing Commission announced its “Drugs Minus Two” change in the sentencing guidelines for non-violent drug offenders in 2014, thousands of prisoners have filed for relief on a case-by-case basis. [See: PLN, Aug. 2014, p.26].
The sentencing change, made in part to relieve serious overcrowding in the BOP, was hailed by prisoners’ rights advocates such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), which noted it was the largest single one-time release of federal prisoners.
“The number of people who will be affected is quite exceptional,” said FAMM general counsel Mary Price. She acknowledged that so many prisoner releases “could be a scary thing,” but added it could also “be a signal that we as a nation are serious about rethinking our approach to crime and punishment.”
FAMM and Prison Legal News, as well as many other organizations, have drawn attention over the past several decades to the over-criminalization of non-violent drug offenses which has stuffed federal prisons to over 135% of their rated capacity.
Of course the BOP already had many tools at its disposal to reduce its prisoner population prior to this change by the Sentencing Commission, but was repeatedly cited in investigations conducted by the Government Accountability Office as being either unwilling or unable to do so without prodding by Congress or the courts. Now the Commission has taken that decision out of the BOP’s hands by mandating this latest round of early releases.
One of the other developments driving the recently-announced release of federal prisoners is the tight budget of the Department of Justice (DOJ), which now spends over a third of its allotted funds bankrolling the BOP. As a result, there is less money available for U.S. Attorney’s offices, the FBI, the ATF and other law enforcement agencies.
It should be noted that the early releases are not automatic, and even if the DOJ does not oppose sentence reductions in individual cases, the federal courts are still the final arbiter of who is freed. However, there is pressure to release eligible prisoners under the Drugs Minus Two sentencing guidelines change, and that can only be good news for both the prisoners – most of whom have already served a majority of their sentences – and their families.
“It warms my heart to hear that 6,000 people will be coming home,” said Anthony Papa, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance who served 12 years in prison on a drug-related offense. “The drug war has devastated families and communities, and it is time for the healing to begin,” he added.
The Sentencing Commission estimates that an additional 8,550 federal prisoners will become eligible for early release under Drugs Minus Two over the next year. Around 46,000 prisoners are expected to eventually have their sentences reduced, by an average of one to two years each. Approximately one-third of those who receive sentence reductions are non-citizens subject to deportation, while according to a June 2015 Commission report, over 2,000 prisoners have been denied reductions.
Recently, criminal justice reform bills that limit federal mandatory minimum sentences have been introduced in both the U.S. Senate and House, which, if enacted, will further reduce the BOP’s population over the long term.
Sources: Washington Post, NBC News, The New York Times, The Marshall Project
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