In a move that is the biggest of its kind in it’s history, the US is releasing 6,000 drug offenders from federal custody over the next few days.
The prisoners will be released from federal Bureau of Prisons custody on Friday and Monday as a result of a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision last year to cut sentences of drug offenders by an average of two years.
The vast majority have spent only a short time in a halfway house — not the six months to a year normally required for drug offenses — before being transferred to the much looser restrictions of home confinement
Nearly 80% of the rest — or about 3,400 — already have moved to the Bureau of Prisons’ halfway houses or were confined at home, but will be released from custody by Tuesday, according to the Justice Department.
The remaining 850 or so will be released directly from prison to a probation officer.
Prisoners being released include 250 from California, 310 from Florida, 260 from Illinois, 95 from Maryland, 100 from Pennsylvania, 163 from Virginia and 35 from Connecticut.
The decision not to require the prisoners to spend lengthy transition periods in halfway houses “is a major concern,” said Malcolm C. Young, a Washington lawyer who works as a consultant on criminal justice issues.
“We have known for years that reintegrating people back into society is a challenge, and the results have not been very good,” he said.
The problem is overcrowding. About 6,000 federal prisoners are normally released under supervision each month, and many already fill the system’s 209 halfway houses.
Edmund Ross, a spokesman for the Bureau of Prisons, said that under normal circumstances, most prisoners are sent to halfway houses before transitioning to home confinement. If an inmate has a stable family situation, the halfway house stay can be as little as a day, he said.
A senior Justice Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the Bureau of Prisons has prepared for the mass release for more than a year and has scheduled other releases to put “as many as possible” into halfway houses before this weekend.
The Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judiciary, voted last year to cut drug sentences by an average of two years. It followed up with a vote to make the reductions retroactive.
Up to 46,000 prisoners could be affected by the sentencing reductions, according to the commission. They include some inmates who used violence while committing a drug crime.
An additional 8,500 prisoners will be eligible for release this year under the sentence reductions, according to the commission.
Before a prisoner is released, a federal judge must make a determination that he or she is not a threat to public safety.
About 25% who applied for early release under the program have been rejected, according to the Sentencing