Overcrowding and harsh sentences in the federal prison system have dramatically escalated in the past few years. While one third of the Justice Department’s budget is allocated to funding federal prisons, they are still operating at 40 percent over capacity. This costs about $7 billion to support the surplus of prisoners. The American population has grown by one third since 1980, but the federal prison population has grown by 800 percent.
In light of this issue, the U.S Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for many drug offenses in April 2014. Three months after the initial change in guidelines, the commission made the sentencing reduction retroactive. Both votes ended with unanimous support for the reductions.
In addition to the changes made by the commission, the Justice Department has instructed prosecutors not to pursue low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.
An estimated 6,000 inmates will be set free by the Justice Department’s bureau of prisons between October 30th and November first. Out of those inmates, 140 will be returning to Maryland. Most of the soon-to-be-released inmates are currently working at halfway houses. The rest will be released to immigration authorities.
Inmates are only eligible for a sentence reduction if their crime’s offense level was rescheduled to a lower level. They must petition their sentence, and then a judge has the opportunity to keep it the same or reduce it. Sentences can not be reduced below the mandatory minimum for a specific charges. The success rate for reductions has been 70 applicants a week so far.
Freeing these drug dealers from their draconian sentences may seem like a premature decision. Surprisingly, a longer punishment is not proven to increase public safety. In fact, studies have shown that inmates that were released early are not more likely to repeat their criminal behaviors in comparison to those who served their entire sentences.
Evidence of this is apparent. Last year, the sentencing commission did a study on offenders who were released early under 2007 revisions to crack cocaine guidelines. They found that these inmates were no more likely to re-offend than those who served slightly longer sentences.
These drug dealers are often the result of an impoverished and rough childhood. Perhaps, being released with skills they learned from the halfway houses, these inmates may be in a better position when trying to integrate back into society. If inmates are able to have a productive new start, it will greatly reduce the risk to public safety.
This decision helped address the overcrowding and harsh sentencing, but could also pose a threat to public safety. Especially during a very sensitive time for Maryland, when homicides and shootings have spiked this year. “Our concern is simple — the more criminals you put on the street, the more crime you’re going to have,” said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys. “And releasing [thousands of] convicted drug traffickers, many of whom have ties to gangs and drug cartels, will have an obvious impact and increase in serious and violent crime.”
As more inmates are being released early, it is important to make sure that they have the resources to properly assimilate back into society. Otherwise this humanitarian act could become detrimental to society. The money saved from the release of these inmates could be offset by an increased need for social program funding.
There are many inmates who have already learned their lesson, but are still subjected to the harsh conditions that prison has to offer. It is a waste of time, money and resources to further keep them in prison. The criminal justice system is a broken one. One of the first steps towards reform include the new drug sentencing guidelines. Hopefully, it’s a successful one.