U.S. to release 6,000 federal inmates as part of prison reform

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WASHINGTON – Later this month, about 6,000 federal prisoners are expected to be granted an early release as part of a mass release from the Bureau of Prisons.

Officials say it will be the largest mass release in the bureau’s history and could lead to tens of thousands of early releases in the future.

It was triggered by a move by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which lowered sentences for many drug offenders. The commission also made the change retroactive, meaning many offenders serving time in prison would qualify for an early release.

Even with the reductions, officials with the Justice Department say drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences.

The reductions are not automatic. Instead, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.

“The Department of Justice strongly supports sentencing reform for low-level, non-violent drug offenders,” said Sally Quillian Yates, a deputy attorney general with the department.

Once inmates are released, she said, probation officers “are working hard to ensure that returning offenders are adequately supervised and monitored.”

In July, President Obama visited a federal prison in Oklahoma to speak with inmates who are serving stiff sentences

Obama said that the United States accounts for just five percent of the world’s population, but accounts for 25 percent of the world’s inmates.

He says one of the main flaws with the criminal justice system is the country’s mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenders.

“Visiting with these individuals, and I’ve said this before, when they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different from the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes. And, you know, I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think that it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal , it’s not what happens in other countries. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes,” he said.

About one-third of the 6,000 inmates slated for release between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2 are non-citizens so they will be turned over to U.S. Immigration Custom Enforcement officials for deportation proceedings, according to one Justice Department official.

The prisoners have served an average of nine years and were due to be released in about 18 months, the official said. Many were already in half-way houses.

The releases come amid a surge in murders and violent crimes in many cities around the country — a trend that FBI Director James Comey noted during a recent press briefing at FBI headquarters.

Comey told reporters no one seems to be able to explain increases of 30 percent to 50 percent in murders in a wide variety of cities with little in common.

“Something very worrisome is going on,” he said Thursday.

He added that his concern will cause him to be “thoughtful” about ongoing moves to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.