The end of October will herald new beginnings for roughly 6,000 inmates whose sentences have been reduced under changes to federal sentencing guidelines. While it might be tempting to attribute these changes to Obama’s push this last year for prison reform, these policy changes stem from wheels set into motion quite some time ago. Under pressure from civil society and members of the American justice community, the US Sentencing Commission, with support and instruction from the Justice Department, has began revising its approach, in relation to drug sentencing, culminating in a November 2014 amendment (Amendment 728) that reduces sentencing guidelines by two “levels” for crimes related to all drugs.  order to successfully petition, prisoners must fulfil what’s being called the “Drugs Minus Two” guideline—a reference to federal sentencing guidelines which “rely on a numeric system [the drug quantity table] based on different factors, including the defendant’s criminal history, the type of crime, whether a gun was involved and whether the defendant was a leader in a drug group.”  Since last year, those already convicted of drug offences have been able to retroactively seek reductions in their sentences. 

The lag between the unanimous passing of the amendment and the first set of releases reflects the lengthy process involved in prisoners petitioning for release and the in-depth vetting of applicants by justice officials designed to ensure public safety.

It is important to note that while Obama’s decisions to grant clemency—while laudable—do not represent the kind of systemic change we are seeing through both the future and retroactive application of the USSC’s amendment (in fact, then-Attorney General Eric Holder attempted earlier this year implement a more restrictive criteria that would have excluded roughly half of eligible applicants). Rather, these sentencing changes represent a fundamental shift away from the ethic of mandatory minimum sentencing that has turned made the US accountable for fully one quarter of the world’s prison populations. Generally speaking, those who apply successfully will see a reduction in their sentences of two years or so.

Upon release, the bulk of prisoners will be released to half-way houses and all will be subject to the same probationary measures applicable to “regular” re-entries. Roughly a third of those  released at month’s end are the kinds of undocumented immigrants we reported on earlier; most of whom will ultimately face deportation.

There are, of course, important questions that accompany a process which—at least in judicial terms—has been exceedingly quick. And questions are being raised over procedural concerns and the lack of uniformity accompanying many of the decisions over who is considered to still be a threat to public safety. 

Chicken Little alarmists and the Fox News Brigades are already presenting a vision of some kind of post-apocalyptic hellscape for the country come October 31st—a dystopia that no rational observer of this issue lends any credence to. But with some critics, there is one point of contention upon which we do agree: many prisoners are re-entering society without the skills and training they need to be able to succeed. 

As we well know, when prisoners are released without adequate re-entry support and little skills training or education, the likelihood of them re-offending is exponentially higher. And if we fail to offer the treatment and education options that will reduce recidivism and create stronger communities, then we must not forget to take some measure of responsibility for the society such failures create.

For those not part of this “first wave,” we’ve written previously to explain its applicability to prisoners. 

 

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).

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