Beginning next month, 6,000 federal inmates, mostly drug offenders, will be released from prison early. You might believe that this is good reason to be afraid—wild men and addicts running loose on the street! But it will be just fine. Last time it happened, it was just fine, too.
The Marshall Project has a thorough explainer of the news, which was first reported in the Washington Post yesterday. It boils down to this: last year, a federal agency called the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to soften the recommended sentences for federal drug offenders, and to allow those who have already been convicted to retroactively apply for a reduced sentence. The commission rightly believes that existing federal sentences are unduly harsh, and that reducing them will be both a human rights victory and a balm for the overcrowded and tightly budgeted federal prison system.
Next month, the first batch of those applicants who were approved for a reduction will get out. Many more prisoners will be released under the new guidelines down the road. This is a good thing. Don’t worry about it.
A vaguely alarmist report from the Associated Press notes that while many of the soon-to-be-freed inmates are “small-time dealers targeted by a draconian approach to drug enforcement,” others seem less friendly. One man identified in the AP report was described by prosecutors as a “calamity waiting to happen”; others were busted for robbery or carrying guns. ABC News similarly reports on the presence of violent offenders among the pack.
The implication is that the public faces of initiatives like this one and President Obama’s July release of 46 federal prisoners—as clemency for purely non-violent people caught in a web outdated and ineffective laws—is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. In a way, that’s correct: real prison reform cannot happen to the exclusion of those who have been convicted of violent crimes.
But that doesn’t mean the coming release should be cause for alarm. These are people who would be released at some point anyway. Now, they’re getting out a little sooner. The AP’s “calamity waiting to happen” was not serving life in prison. His nearly seven-year sentence for selling PCP was cut by 22 months, meaning he’ll be out in 2017 instead of 2019. Similarly, the Marshall Project points to a hypothetical heroin offender who, under the new guidelines, would receive 41 to 51 months in prison instead of 51 to 63.
If your worry is that these people will be back on your block before they’ve had a chance to truly rehabilitate—that they’ll get out early and immediately start committing more crimes—well, unfortunately, some of them probably will. Recidivism does happen, despite the Justice Department’s best efforts. But no more will fall back onto bad behavior than would under the older, less fair laws.
How do I know? In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission rolled back the racist sentencing guidelines for possession of crack (widely used by minorities and the poor) to bring them more in line with those for powdered cocaine (widely used by rich whites). When crack offenders were released under retroactive application of new guidelines, the commission found “no evidence that offenders whose sentence lengths were reduced...had higher recidivism rates than a comparison group of crack cocaine offenders who were released prior to the effective date.”
In other words, unless you’re the kind of person who believes that anyone who’s ever been convicted of robbery or selling drugs should be locked up for the rest of their lives, you’ve got nothing to worry about.