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Thousands Of Federal Inmates Released Following Sentencing Changes


Today, about 6,000 federal inmates convicted of drug crimes continue to leave prisons and halfway houses. They are in the first wave of early releases following a big change in how the U.S. justice system punishes drug offenders. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: A little-known bureaucracy in Washington, D.C., is responsible for one of the most significant changes in criminal justice policy in a generation. The U.S. Sentencing Commission sets guidelines for punishing federal criminals. And in July 2014, the commission unanimously voted to apply more lenient guidelines to drug offenders already behind bars, a concept known as retroactivity. Judge Patti Saris leads the commission.


PATTI SARIS: Retroactive application of this change in the guidelines would make a real short-term and long-term difference as we seek to help get the federal prison budget and population under control.

MCEVERS: Many federal prisons suffer from severe overcrowding, and Justice Department dollars that could fund more prosecutors, FBI agents and police grants instead are going to pay for incarceration. That's the backdrop for the move by the sentencing panel in Washington and for a broad ongoing push by the White House to get Congress to pass legislation that would dial back some tough punishments that date to the war on drugs.

President Obama traveled to New Jersey today to highlight ways to change the system. He's promoting programs that offer returning inmates better housing and education. And he says he wants to make sure federal employers ask job hunters later in the process about their criminal histories, making it easier for former inmates to get their foot in the door.


BARACK OBAMA: We can't dismiss people out of hand simply because of a mistake that they made in the past.

JOHNSON: Cutting drug criminals a break is still controversial for many in law enforcement. Bob Bushman of a national group of narcotics officers says he's worried about public safety.

BOB BUSHMAN: The more you reduce prison sentences, the more incentive you'll give drug dealers to continue committing the crimes that help their businesses grow while they poison our young people and destroy our communities.

JOHNSON: But the administrations says judges approved each of the early releases, and it says the prisoner releases will make a real difference in people's lives. Julie Stewart is an advocate for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

JULIE STEWART: If we can reduce sentences by an average of 25 months, which is what the commission has just done, that's going to make a lot of people be home in time to go to weddings and graduations and see babies born. And it's - these are human lives that will be affected.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson
Carrie Johnson is NPR's National Justice Correspondent.