The U.S. Justice Department is courageously moving forward with plans for the early release of prisoners who are serving sentences that don't fit their crimes. In the coming weeks, the department plans to free 6,000 federal inmates. This action is long overdue and should be accompanied by robust efforts to ensure ex-offenders' successful reintegration into society.
Justice Department officials confirmed last week that they are set to release 6,001 federal inmates from prisons across the country. The releases, which will be staggered from Oct. 30 to Nov. 2, are part of a multiyear Obama administration effort to reduce the federal prison population by letting out inmates who committed nonviolent crimes and received unjustly harsh sentences. Foreign citizens, who will be immediately deported, make up 1,870 of the inmates scheduled for release, according to the Washington Post. Of the remaining inmates, about two-thirds will go to halfway houses or home confinement before being eligible for supervised release. Florida will get 295 ex-offenders, the second-largest group headed to a single state, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Texas will lead the nation, receiving 578 former inmates.
The effort, the largest one-time release of federal prisoners, follows action by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which last year wisely reduced potential punishments for drug offenders and made the changes retroactive. The change in sentencing guidelines could result in the eventual release of 46,000 of the country's 100,000 federal drug offenders, the Post reported. Another 8,550 federal inmates will be eligible for release in the next year.
In hindsight, the country's war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s was well intended but heavy-handed and resulted in the creation of mandatory minimum sentences that often far outweighed the crimes committed. Decades later, federal prisons are bulging with inmates who are serving outsized sentences for nonviolent drug crimes.
Taxpayers are paying the price. The cost of incarceration makes up about one-third of the Justice Department's $27 billion budget. And there's the incalculable cost of the absence of the offenders — many of them African-American men — from society. Most of the inmates considered for early release have already served an average of 8½ years of their 10½-year sentences. Others have served decades. Some had life sentences. Each has been appropriately punished and earned the opportunity for redemption.
Reforming the criminal justice system is a worthy goal that has broad, bipartisan support. The Justice Department is right to put teeth behind its yearslong campaign to provide a path to freedom for federal inmates who have paid their debts to society.
But with tens of thousands of federal prisoners eligible for release under this initiative and more under other federal efforts, significant resources should be directed toward helping ex-offenders rejoin society. Employers should give ex-convicts a chance by providing work that pays a living wage. Federal, state and local governments, community groups, religious organizations and individuals also should work to ease former inmates' path to lawful living. Ex-offenders are ultimately responsible for their own fates, but they cannot do it alone.