6K inmates convicted on drug charges to be freed early

Eric Tucker
Associated Press

Washington — A push to overhaul criminal sentencing is prompting the early release of thousands of federal drug prisoners, including some whom prosecutors once described as threats to society, according to an Associated Press review of court records.

About 6,000 inmates are due to be freed from custody in the coming month, the result of changes made last year to guidelines that provide judges with recommended sentences for specific crimes. Federal officials say roughly 40,000 inmates could be eligible for reduced sentences in coming years.

Many are small-time drug dealers targeted by an approach to drug enforcement now condemned by many as overly harsh and expensive. But an AP analysis of nearly 100 court cases also identified defendants who carried semi-automatic weapons, had past convictions for robbery and other crimes, moved cocaine shipments across states, and participated in international heroin smuggling.

The broad spectrum of defendants granted early release — including some about whom prosecutors not long ago raised dire warnings — underscores the complex decisions confronting the government as it pursues an overhaul of drug sentencing.

“I’m a career prosecutor. I’m a law-and-order girl, and I believe that you need to send dangerous people to prison for a very long time,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “But I think that we need to be smart about deciding who are those dangerous people.”

Guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission offer recommended minimum and maximum terms for federal crimes. The independent commission voted last year to reduce ranges for drug offenses, then applied those changes to already-imprisoned convicts.

The first wave is due around Nov. 1, and most of those getting early release are already in halfway houses or under home confinement. Others will be released to immigration authorities for eventual deportation.

“Nothing to date comes close to what this shift is likely to produce over the next decade or so, starting this year,” said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

The action is part of a national effort to rethink punishments for a drug offender population that comprises roughly half the federal inmate count.