Issues to Watch

6,000 Federal Prisoners Released, But Where Did They Go?


6,000 Federal Prisoners Released, But Where Did They Go?

Lelia Parker*

The United States’ prisoner population is 20% of the world’s prison population, making the United States the “world’s largest jailer”—but this is nothing to boast about.  The Prison Crisis, ACLU, https://www.aclu.org/prison-crisis (last visited Feb. 21, 2016).  The War on Drugs, the longest war in American history, has significantly contributed to the nation’s rising incarceration rate over the past 30 years.  A Brief History of the Drug War, Drug Pol’y Alliance, http://www.drugpolicy.org/new-solutions-drug-policy/brief-history-drug-war (last visited Feb. 21, 2016).  The federal prison system’s budget is $9 billion of the Department of Justice’s $27 billion budget.  Sara Horwitz, Justice Department Set to Free 6,000 Prisoners, Largest One-Time Release, Wash. Post (Oct. 6, 2015), https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/justice-department-about-to-free-6000-prisoners-largest-one-time-release/2015/10/06/961f4c9a-6ba2-11e5-aa5b-f78a98956699_story.html.  However, the burgeoning prison population and its outrageous costs have led administrative agencies and legislators to implement efforts to reduce the federal prison population. 

But exactly how did the U.S. get to this point?  Many researchers and experts attribute the rising prison population to the War on Drugs that began in 1971 and continues being waged in cities across America.  A Brief History of The Drug War, supra.  Although, several states and agencies have passed laws that decriminalized certain drugs for personal use, the Reagan administration began to beef up its “tough on drugs” policies with fear inducing propaganda.  Id;  see also Cornelia Read, The Other War We Aren’t Winning, NakedAuthors.com (May 15, 2007), http://www.nakedauthors.com/2007/05/other-war-we-arent-winning.html (featuring a comic that reads “Teen-age Dope Slaves,” and another piece of propaganda that reads “Marijuana, The Smoke of Hell, A vicious racket with its arms around your children!”).  In 1985, between two and six percent of Americans saw drug use as the nation’s primary problem and in 1989 that number increased to 64%.  A Brief History of The Drug War, supra.  Now thirty years later, more than half of the federal prison population consists of nonviolent drug offenders.  Josh Keller, Why It Will Be Hard for Obama to Downsize Prisons, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/07/21/us/politics/obama-downsize-prisons-mass-incarceration.html.

Roughly 6,000 nonviolent drug offenders were freed on early release between late October and early November 2014 thanks to the new sentencing guidelines that went into effect in November 2014.  Horwitz, supra.  Many have supported the change while others, namely law enforcement agencies, have criticized the releases based on the fear of an increase in crime.  See Sinclair Broad. Grp., Lawmakers React to Early Release of 6,000 Inmates, WSET (Oct. 7, 2015), http://wset.com/news/nation-world/lawmakers-react-to-early-release-of-6000-inmates-by-the-justice-department (citing several legislators as they weighed in on the early releases).  But see Michael L. Schmidt, U.S. to Release 6,000 Inmates from Prison, N.Y. Times (Oct. 6, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/07/us/us-to-release-6000-inmates-under-new-sentencing-guidelines.html?_r=1 (quoting Ronald E. Teachman, a former police chief, who believes that “[p]eople come out of prison hardened and angry more likely to offend”).

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent federal agency, is calling the new sentencing guidelines “Drugs Minus Two.”  Horwitz, supra. The commission sets the federal guidelines based on numerical weights that are assigned to several factors such as the criminal offense, the defendant’s criminal history, and the use of a weapon.  Id.  The Drugs Minus Two guidelines reduce the numerical value for a drug offense by two levels and applies the changes retroactively.  Id. 

Under the new sentencing guidelines, more than 40,000 prisoners—including the 6,000 that were freed in late October—could be freed on early release in the next five years.  The Editorial Bd., A Step Toward Justice in the Release of 6,000 Prisoners, N.Y. Times (Oct. 7, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/08/opinion/a-step-toward-justice-in-the-release-of-6000-prisoners.html?_r=0.  That’s less than 10,000 prisoners a year—which is less than the amount of prisoners released from state and federal prisons each week.  Id.  Although law enforcement officials voiced concerns about the public safety risks associated with early releases, the federal courts have reviewed all of the prisoners to make sure that they did not pose a significant public safety risk.  Id.

Unfortunately, this does not guarantee that all of the released offenders will stay out of prison.  Studies show that incarceration does not necessarily reduce the likelihood that an offender will reoffend.  See Anna Leach, Prison Doesn’t w=Work 50% of the Time, Mirror (June 24, 2014), http://www.mirror.co.uk/authors/ampp3d-from-mirror/prison-doesnt-work-50-time-3748230 (finding that 47% of jailed offenders are likely to reoffend within one year of release).  See also Prison Time Served and Recidivism, Pew Charitable Trs. (Oct. 8, 2013), http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/fact-sheets/2013/10/08/prison-time-served-and-recidivism (finding that “little or no evidence [proving] longer prison terms for many nonviolent offenders produced either incapacitation or deterrence effects”).  Recidivism rates can be influenced by an offender’s connection to the outside world, the availability of job training and education in prison, and the security level assigned to the prisoner.  Impact of Prison Experience on Recidivism, Nat’l Institute of Just. (Oct. 3, 2008), http://www.nij.gov/topics/corrections/recidivism/pages/prison-experience.aspx; Education and Vocational Training in Prisons Reduces Recidivism, RAND (Aug. 22, 2013), http://www.rand.org/news/press/2013/08/22.html.  Thus, releasing prisoners early may do nothing for the prison population if the offenders were not prepared or trained to readjust to society upon release. 

The federal prison system utilizes halfway houses to prepare released offenders to reenter society.  Released offenders who are immigrants were immediately deported upon release.  However, the majority of the offenders went to halfway houses or were placed under home supervision.  Dara Lind, The Biggest Prisoner Release in US History, Vox (Oct. 7, 2015), http://www.vox.com/2015/10/7/9470683/prisoners-released-early.  Halfway houses serve as a buffer and another transition that promotes successful reentry into society.  Theoretically, halfway houses offer treatment programs, job placement assistance, and strict rules against drugs and alcohol.  When Is a Prisoner Released to a Halfway House?, Lawyers.com, http://criminal.lawyers.com/criminal-law-basics/when-is-a-prisoner-released-to-a-halfway-house.html (last visited Feb. 21, 2016).  On the contrary, anecdotal accounts suggest that these transitioning programs are not as effective as what some authorities put forward.  See Erik Borsuk, Out of Prison, Not Yet Home, VICE (Feb. 9, 2015), http://www.vice.com/read/halfway-to-nowhere-0000582-v22n2.

Although recidivism rates are merely projections at this juncture, several administrative and legislative measures could prevent prison populations from growing. The Justice Department has encouraged local prosecutors “not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no connection to gangs or large-scale drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.”  Horwitz, supra.  In October 2015, a bipartisan effort in the Senate—which some have called “the most important federal justice overhaul in a generation”—introduced legislation that would decrease mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, encourage early releases, and create more programming that supports successful acclimation upon release.  Carl Hulse & Jennifer Steinhauer, Sentencing Overhaul Proposed in Senate with Bipartisan Backing, N.Y. Times (Oct. 1, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/02/us/politics/senate-plan-to-ease-sentencing-laws.html.  This measure shows that legislators have made note of the nation’s incarceration problem and are willing to cross the aisle to provide solutions. No matter the success of the proposed legislation the released offenders may still have to pave their own way to a successful reentry.


*Lelia Parker is a second year law student at the University of Baltimore School of Law, where she serves as the Director of Community Service for the Black Law Student Association. She is currently interning with Judge Clayton Greene Jr. at the Court of Appeals of Maryland. This summer, Lelia will be working as a Summer Associate for Saul Ewing LLP.

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