Early release of 6,000 federal prisoners could spell trouble


The Federal Bureau of Prisons is slated to release 6,000 prisoners as a result of an overhaul of federal criminal sentencing statutes. Why the need to overhaul the system? Since 1980, federal prison population has increased by 800 percent, and prisons are nearly 40 percent over capacity. Federal prisons consume a third of the Justice Department’s $27 billion budget.

The rhetoric of policy makers is that the release of these 6,000 inmates would focus primarily on “nonviolent drug offenders.”

So who are these 6,000 inmates? According to The Marshall Project, they are mostly black and Hispanic men. The average age is mid-30s. Their drug of choice was cocaine, including crack, followed by methamphetamines. They are most likely to return to southern states, but 736 of those inmates are from Ohio and Pennsylvania.

State and federal prisons release about 13,000 inmates every week as they complete their sentences, but 6,000 at once is different— “the largest one-time federal release,” according to The Washington Post.

An Associated Press analysis of about 100 of those inmates slated for release found that they are not as “nonviolent” as has been suggested. Some have histories that include carrying semi-automatic weapons, past convictions for robbery and other crimes, some moved cocaine shipments across states lines, while others participated in international heroin smuggling.

Twenty years ago, the Bureau of Justice found that trafficking in illicit drugs tended to be associated with commission of violent crimes. That has not changed. Some reasons for the relationship between drug trafficking and violence include:

Competition for drug markets and customers;

Disputes and ripoffs among individuals involved in the illegal drug market;

Individuals who participate in drug trafficking are prone to use violence;

Locations where drug markets proliferate tend to be disadvantaged, and social controls against violence tend to be ineffective there.

A greater concern is that any effort to get back to historic levels of incarceration would require prison population to be reduced substantially, which can’t be achieved by releasing only “non-violent drug offenders.”

More than half of today’s state inmates are in prison for violent crimes. There is no reason to believe that those numbers are not also representative of the federal prison system. Solving mass incarceration requires releasing some violent and dangerous people. The problem is how to do that without compromising public safety.

Even those who support the mass release of prisoners see the potential for failure. An increase in crime, including violent crime, seems almost inevitable. Eunisses Hernandez, who works at the Amity Foundation, told National Public Radio, “They’re going to say, ‘We told you so.’”

“If they released, like, half the population right now, without services and with the re-entry systems that are currently available, I do believe that more crime will exist,” Hernandez said. “Because people need to survive, and they’re gonna do what it takes to survive.”

Gradual transition

Mark A.R. Kleiman, Angela Hawken, and Ross Halperin wrote last spring for Vox Media, “For the transition from prison to life outside to be successful, it needs to be gradual. If someone needed to be locked up yesterday, he shouldn’t be completely at liberty today. And he shouldn’t be asked to go from utter dependency to total self-sufficiency in one flying leap. He needs both more control and more support. Neither alone is likely to do the job.”

Will the support be there for the 6,000 federal inmates about to walk out of prison? If not, the consequences will be disruption of already vulnerable communities and an increase in victimization.

Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino.

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