Between October 30 and November 2, the Justice Department plans to release about 6,000 drug offenders whose terms were shortened as a result of changes approved last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The Washington Post describes it as "the largest one-time release of federal prisoners" in U.S. history.
"After years of advocating on behalf of Americans who are unfairly incarcerated," said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), "I am pleased that our nation's policies are beginning to bend further towards justice. These offenders would have already completed their sentences and been freed if convicted under today's guidelines, and I am pleased the President's Administration is acting to bring these inmates the justice they deserve, reunite them with their families, and save American taxpayers money."
The American Civil Liberties Union also welcomed the prisoner release. "Today's announcement is nothing short of thrilling because it carries justice," said Jesselyn McCurdy, the ACLU's senior legislative counsel. "Far too many people have lost years of their lives to draconian sentencing laws born of the failed drug war. People of color have had to bear the brunt of these misguided and cruel policies. We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back."
The New York Times reports that "about a third of the inmates are undocumented immigrants who will be deported"; the rest will be sent to halfway houses or home confinement prior to supervised release. The prisoners are getting out earlier than originally expected thanks to retroactive application of a "modest amendment" that the sentencing commission approved in April 2014. The amendment reduced by two the "base offense levels," tied to drug weight, that judges use to calculate sentences. The commission estimated that about 70 percent of future drug defendants would benefit from the change, with an average sentence reduction of 11 months. And because it voted three months later to make the amendment retroactive, an estimated 46,000 current inmates—nearly half of all the drug offenders in federal prison—became eligible for resentencing, with an average sentence reduction of 25 months.
Judges are not obligated to follow the sentencing guidelines, but they do so in 80 percent of cases. The amendment did not affect the mandatory minimum penalties set by statute, which only Congress can change. In explaining the rationale for the amendment, U.S. District Judge Patti B. Saris, who chairs the commission, cited the "safety valve" that Congress created for certain low-level drug offenders. Since the safety valve rewards cooperation by allowing defendants to escape mandatory minimums, Saris said, "it is no longer necessary to set the guidelines above mandatory minimum penalties to encourage low-level offenders to cooperate."
The number of offenders affected by retroactive application of the amendment surely is impressive, and two years off a prison sentence is nothing to sneeze at. Furthermore, that's an average, so some prisoners' sentences will be shortened by more than two years (and some by less). But it's important to keep in mind that we are talking about people convicted of engaging in voluntary transactions. To cut the sentence of someone who never should have been in prison from 10 years to eight is an improvement, but it's not exactly justice.