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Justice Department aims to release 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders from prison

October 6, 2015 at 6:30 PM EDT
The Justice Department announced a plan for the largest ever one-time release of federal prisoners. Jeffrey Brown speaks to Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project about the decision to set free some 6,000 inmates, part of a broader push to provide relief to individuals hit with harsh sentences and to reduce overcrowded prisons.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: In the largest ever one-time release of federal prisoners, the Justice Department announced today a plan to set free some 6,000 inmates.

Jeffrey Brown looks at that. It’s part of our ongoing series Broken Justice on efforts to address mass incarceration in the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: The move is aimed at nonviolent drug offenders, and it’s part of a broader push on a number of fronts to provide relief to individuals hit with harsh sentences and to reduce overcrowded prisons.

The first group of inmates from around the nation will be released between October 30 and November 1. More will follow in the coming year.

Joining us now is Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news site focused on criminal justice issues.

Welcome to you.

So, first, tell us a little bit about who these 6,000 prisoners are. Why are they in particular being released?

MAURICE CHAMMAH, The Marshall Project: Sure.

So, these are all, according to the Department of Justice, low-level and nonviolent drug offenders who went into the system a number of years ago. And then a year ago, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is an independent judicial organization, set new sentencing guidelines and made those retroactive, which meant that prisoners who were serving time for drug crimes in the federal system could apply for new sentences to have their sentences reduced under the new guidelines.

And it took about a year for the DOJ to prepare and the Bureau of Prisons to prepare to release these prisoners, but they’re all coming at one time as sort of the first wave of this, and then over next year, a little over 8,000 prisoners stand to also be released. In total, it’s been estimated that over 40,000 will be released eventually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Forty thousand in total.

But individuals, the process is that they apply to it and they get a yea or nay. And what happens to them upon release?

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Well, after they apply to a judge, and the judge, you know, working with probation officers and prosecutors, decides that they’re not going to be a threat, they’re sent to halfway houses. Some of them are on home confinement.

And then, eventually, they will be released back into the community.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this is very much part of a larger movement to deal with mass incarceration, right? And this is also very much connected with changing mandatory sentence guidelines.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: That’s correct, although this sort of sits alongside those efforts. It is kind of a major symbolic moment, at the same time that both the Senate and the House are considering major criminal justice reform bills, which would change mandatory minimum sentences, work to give more resources for people coming out of federal prisons, and a variety of other kind of reform initiatives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Congress looking at it, a number of initiatives, and, interestingly enough, bipartisan, right, to bringing together a lot of folks that often aren’t together on various issues.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Right.

What’s so interesting about this is that it’s coming at a moment where increasingly over the past several years conservatives, kind of coming up from a groundswell of kind of mini-movements in Texas and Utah, are saying that the criminal justice system as it stands now represents a waste of money, a waste of human potential.

And so you do see a lot of Republicans whose predecessors perhaps in the ’80s and ’90s, like their fellow Democrats, supported extremely, sort of tough-on-crime, long sentences, harsh mandatory minimums. You’re seeing a really interesting kind of bipartisan moment right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so you have that on the one hand.

But are there also concerns? How much concern do you hear about the potential for a spike in crime, say, upon the release of all these prisoners?

MAURICE CHAMMAH: I think it’s going to be really interesting in the coming days to see what that concern looks like, whether different voices in the media bring it up.

Certainly, a year ago, when the Sentencing Commission made this decision to allow these prisoners to be released, Senator Chuck Grassley, who heads up the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed concern that murderers and robbers would be let back out onto the streets. He hasn’t spoken yet about this group of 6,000, but it stands to reason that there is a camp, particularly with some in the Republican Party, though perhaps not exclusively, who are going to raise a concern.

And there is not yet really proof whether these people are going to represent a danger, though it should be kind of mentioned in this context that, every year, that the federal government and the states release hundreds of thousands of prisoners, and it’s not necessarily the case that this group of 6,000 are sort of more or less dangerous than the larger group.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re saying this will be a potential test case for recidivism rates for released prisoners, clearly.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Absolutely, a test case for that, and also just a test case for the sort of political appetite for reform.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is still a relatively small number of prisoners, right? We’re talking about a very large problem in the country.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Correct. Correct.

If you see, you know, overincarceration as a problem, which many increasingly do, this group of 6,000 prisoners is kind of a drop in the bucket. Even the 40,000 prisoners who stand to eventually get out from this sort of small political movement, you know, are sort of, again, a very small portion of the 2.2 million people who are in prisons and jails around the U.S.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Maurice Chammah of The Marshall Project, thanks so much.

MAURICE CHAMMAH: Thank you.

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