About 20 federal prisoners from Massachusetts serving time for drug-related crimes are newly free after having their sentences reduced. They’re among the first to benefit from a revision of sentencing guidelines for drug offenses that, on average, shaves two years off qualified inmates’ jail terms. About 6,100 prisoners nationwide are affected, the majority of them African-American and Hispanic men convicted of dealing drugs. Over the next few years, thousands more could gain their freedom.
The guidelines were revamped last year by the independent US Sentencing Commission to save the federal prison system money and ease overcrowding. According to the US Department of Justice, about half of the inmates in federal prisons are there because of drug offenses. Some have been there too long.
The prospect of prisoners getting out of jail early is understandably unnerving to some, and appalling to others, but the releases are the result of a pragmatic — and bipartisan — effort to lower the nation’s prison population and reduce crime. Many government officials, police chiefs, and others involved in criminal justice have come around to the thinking that it’s far better to devote more resources to prevention and rehabilitation than to the long-term incarceration of relatively low-level offenders. Early release also allows prosecutors to focus on putting the most dangerous criminals behind bars. In a speech earlier this year, Deputy US Attorney General Sally Yates said the strategy already is paying dividends at the state level — violent crime has dropped in most places where mandatory minimum sentences have been limited, she said.
Besides, most of the prisoners granted early release were going to get out in a couple of years even if no action were taken by federal officials. They underwent a vetting process that included a review of their offenses, an assessment of whether they represented a safety threat, and final approval from a court. In addition, some aren’t traveling far from their cells — released prisoners who are in the United States illegally will be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to face deportation.
It would be naive to think the early-release program will be devoid of problems, especially as the number of prisoners participating balloons in coming years. For some, readjusting to a changed society will prove overwhelming — they’ll end up back in jail. The program’s cumulative worth, however, should not be judged solely on those cases, although they will provide fodder for critics.
Early release requires strict supervision to ensure compliance, and a network of support for ex-prisoners. Last Wednesday’s job fair at the Moakley Courthouse was a constructive start. President Obama recently unveiled several measures that also will make a difference, including grants to fund skill training.
If carefully carried out and monitored, early release will not only provide a way to decrease prison ranks while increasing public safety; it can make the possibility of redemption after punishment more realistic.