The 6.112 federal prisoners now being freed earlier than scheduled had sentences that originally averaged 10.5 years and were reduced to an average of 8.5 years, according to the Justice Department. The laws imposing mandatory minimum sentences of decades for some repeat or large-scale offenders remain in effect, the New York Times reports. “People are still getting slammed pretty hard for drug offenses,” said Ohio State University law Prof. Douglas Berman, an expert on sentencing. Citing overcrowding in federal prisons, where half of inmates are in for drug convictions, the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year made downward adjustments in the scoring system for determining sentences and made the changes retroactive. The panel said all reductions in existing sentences must be approved by a judge, who can weigh the risks to the public.
While the change in sentencing guidelines falls far short of proposals to abolish harsh mandatory minimum sentences and reduce the felony prosecution of lower-level drug offenders, it has been welcomed by reform advocates. “I think it's fantastic,” said Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “People have been overpunished for decades, and this, this is slightly correcting the excessive sentences.” The commission and the Justice Department say there is no evidence that keeping inmates behind bars for long terms affects their chances of returning to crime. When sentences for crack cocaine offenses were retroactively reduced in 2007, the commission found that those released early had a slightly lower rate of recidivism than other federal inmates, though rates for both groups were more than 40 percent over five years. Others say releasing offenders early will ncrease crime. Bill Otis, a former federal prosecutor and opponent of softened drug laws, attacked the early releases in a blog post. “When these people start up with a criminal life again, as we know in advance many and very likely most of them will,” he wrote, “who will be accountable for the release decisions, and who will pay the price for the harm then caused?” Most of those released will face years of supervision by a probation officer.