6,000 Prisoners Will Be Freed Early, Just In Time For The Holidays

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images.
The Department of Justice will release 6,000 prisoners — the biggest group of federal prisoners ever — early, just in time for the holidays. It plans to do so between October 30 and November 2 of this year.

The prisoners will go to halfway houses or house arrest. Most of them are drug offenders whose prison stays were reduced retroactively by the U.S. Sentencing Commission last October. The chair of that committee, Judge Patti Saris, called the reductions "a significant step toward the goal the Commission has prioritized of reducing federal-prison costs and overcrowding without endangering public safety."

“Today’s announcement is nothing short of thrilling, because it carries justice," Jesselyn McCurdy, Senior Legislative Counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement. "We are overjoyed that some of the people so wronged will get their freedom back."

To be granted early release, a prisoner must petition a judge to take on and review his or her case. According to the Sentencing Commission, 46,290 prisoners are eligible. That's big — but it also means that 40,000 won't be granted any reduction in prison time.

The Washington Post reported that some judges, like U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth, have already issued rejections of high-profile drug criminals.

It's a work in progress — one the ACLU says is far from over. “On Capitol Hill and in state legislatures across the nation, we will continue to battle mass incarceration and its destruction of families and communities," McCurdy said.

The ACLU is particularly concerned about people of color, who make up a grossly disproportionate number of those incarcerated in the United States. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reports that African-Americans are six times more likely than white people to be incarcerated, and make up 38% of the population arrested for drug offenses.

Tuesday's news comes on the heels of another exciting potential reform to our criminal justice system: a bi-partisan sentencing bill introduced into Congress last week. That measure, called the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, would ban solitary confinement for juvenile offenders and get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, among other changes.

“For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential," said New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, who co-sponsored the bill. "Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America."

Before the sentencing bill reaches President Obama's desk, it will have to pass through the House, where it will likely face opposition.

President Obama has been actively supporting reforms to the criminal justice system. In July, he commuted the sentences of 46 — mostly drug — offenders, breaking the record for the most sentences commuted by any one president. None of these will be counted as part of the 6,000 impending releases.

Like today's announcement and last week's bill, Obama's move sought to address the larger issue of prison overcrowding. The measures are progressive and could save the country 79,740 "bed years" (the equivalent of one federal prisoner occupying a prison bed for a year), according to the Sentencing Commission.

Alongside politicians and lawmakers, celebrities including Amy Schumer and Rosie O'Donnell have joined the effort to reduce the unnecessary severity of sentences. The two, along with 100 other big names, have contributed to the 130,000 total signatures behind the initiative #cut50, which aims to halve the incarcerated population over the next 10 years.

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