The U.S. Justice Department’s announcement last week that it would seek clemency applications from thousands of federal prisoners was a major departure for an administration that has made minimal use of its powers to grant inmates early release. The Baltimore Sun says the potential freeing of thousands of inmates is not completely unknown for the federal justice system — and advocates for shorter sentences say experience shows prisoners can be released without harming the public. Previous changes to sentencing rules led to early release for tens of thousands of inmates serving time for crack convictions. In 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Commission looked at what effect the changes had on ex-convicts’ likelihood of re-offending.
The study compared the recidivism rates of two groups of inmates. The first included crack offenders who had their sentences cut after a 2007 change to the rules. The second consisted of inmates in similar cases who had served their entire sentence. “The overall recidivism rates for the two groups are similar,” the report concluded. The study found that among the group released early, 30 percent had re-offended within two years of getting out of prison. In the group that served full sentences, the rate was about 32 percent. For advocates of early release, like James Wyda, the federal public defender in Maryland, the finding is important because it appears to show prisoners can be released early without posing a greater threat to the public. “We’ve granted so much sentencing relief and no one notices — not a story,” he said.