About 80 percent of the 4,348 inmates remaining in the United States will be released from halfway houses or home confinement between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1; the other 20 percent will return to neighborhoods straight from prison and under the supervision of probation officers, according to a Justice official.
They include inmates like Therese Crepeau, 45, who served 21 years of a 35-year crack and powder cocaine conspiracy sentence. She applied for clemency from President Obama, but he never ruled on her petition.
With the commission’s move, Crepeau became eligible for the sentence reduction, which is referred to as “Drugs Minus Two” because the policy change decreases the sentencing value attached to most drug-trafficking offenses by two levels.
“I feel very blessed, very fortunate,” said Crepeau in an interview Tuesday night. She was released from prison and then a halfway house in July and has been living in “home confinement” in New Mexico with her fiance, a high school sweetheart who reconnected with her about 14 years ago.
When she is released from the custody of the Bureau of Prisons on Friday, Crepeau will remain under the supervision of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System for another five years.
The sentencing commission, a bipartisan, independent agency and not part of the Obama administration, reduced the potential punishment for all future drug offenders last year and then made that change retroactive. At the time, the commission said the change in sentencing guidelines could result in 46,000 of the nation’s approximately 100,000 federal drug offenders qualifying for early release.
The 6,000 inmates is the first group to be released. Another 8,550 inmates are eligible for early release between Oct. 30 and Nov. 1 2016, according to the sentencing commission. The inmates are mostly black and Hispanic men in their early 40s who have served an average of nearly nine years in prison. The average sentence of inmates released is 10.5 years. About 79 percent of the drug charges involved cocaine and methamphetamine.
“Over the past two decades, the federal prison population has increased dramatically, and offenses carrying mandatory minimum sentences have played a significant role in that increase,” said Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, the chairwoman of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, in testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. She said the number of offenders in federal custody serving a mandatory minimum sentence increased from 40,104 in 1995 to 111,454 in 2010 — an increase of 178.1 percent.
“Mandatory minimum penalties have led to unintended disparate consequences and contributed to the current crisis with the federal prison population and budget,” Saris said.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously for the reduction of drug sentences last year. At the time, former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. proposed more restrictive criteria.
Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who was then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, testified on Holder’s behalf last year, saying the department supported a plan to apply the change retroactively to “non-violent offenders who have limited criminal history and did not possess or use a weapon.”
In the end, the sentencing commission did not accept that plan and chose to leave the decision to individual judges. In each case, inmates applying for the early release must petition judges, who are required to consider public safety in deciding whether to grant early release.
In many cases, federal judges have denied the requests. As of Oct. 8, 17,128 petitions for early release were granted. Judges denied 26 percent — or 5,894 — of the petitions they received.
The Justice Department has been preparing for the inmate release for the last year and a half, coordinating the effort with immigration, court, prison and probation officials, the Justice official said. It has been a strain for the Bureau of Prisons, where halfway house beds are all taken.
Keeping inmates in prison longer has historically not been shown to make a difference with recidivism, according to the Justice Department. Sentencing Commission data from the 2007 retroactive change in crack cocaine sentencing shows that recidivism was slightly lower than the average recidivism rate of federal inmates.
Justice officials do not have information on how many of the inmates have jobs yet, and because the BOP contracts with most of the halfway house, the quality of reentry services varies widely.
“It’s something we’re definitely taking a look at and keeping an eye on,” the Justice official said.
While the release of about 6,000 inmates is the largest one-time federal prison release, the Bureau of Prisons releases about 70,000 inmates a year. “It’s something we know how to do,” the Justice official said.