Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

Thousands of nonviolent offenders begin release, but difficulties remain

New federal prison guidelines go into effect amid a bipartisan push to scale back mass incarceration

More than 6,000 federal prisoners will be released starting Friday, after their terms for nonviolent offenses were reduced under sentencing guidelines rewritten last year. The new guidelines came amid a bipartisan push to scale back mass incarceration in the United States, but for many of the inmates, the release will also mean a new set of challenges.

Judicial reform advocates emphasized that the release would not suddenly introduce an unusual number of inmates into society, as the majority of them will first enter into halfway houses, while about 1,700 of them who are not U.S. citizens will be turned over to U.S. customs officials and may face deportation.

The release of the 6,122 inmates — who will be discharged over the next three days — does not amount to “opening up the floodgates,” said Holly Harris, executive director of the Justice Action Network, an alliance of conservative and liberal groups seeking to remove people from prison.

The challenge now is making sure that the released prisoners are able to re-enter society and become productive citizens, Harris told Al Jazeera. “If we’re going to talk about criminal justice reform comprehensively, then it’s about removing obstacles to inmates’ re-entry” into society, she said.

The new policy will grant early release for some 17,000 prisoners convicted of nonviolent drug offenses, and applies retroactively. But it represents just a small fraction of the 200,000 people in federal custody for various crimes. 

Harris observed that people released under the new rules, introduced last summer by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, will need to find work.

“This could be an entirely new labor pool for manufacturing,” she said, adding that the government needs to create incentives for companies to hire released inmates, some who have been in prison for years.

Her organization has been working to aid cooperation between the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Tax Reform. The former supports removing nonviolent offenders from prison, arguing that many drug sentences — especially mandatory minimums — are unfair. Americans for Tax Reform wants to see smaller, cheaper government, and says reducing the prison population is part of that effort.

“Today, 2.3 million American adults, 1 in 100, are in prison or jail across the country, by far the highest rate of any nation. Prisons and jails in the United States have become overcrowded and offer fewer programs aimed at rehabilitation,” the Justice Action Network says on its website.

“And when men and women are released from prison, they are branded with the stigma of incarceration and are often unable to find jobs, leading some to end up back in prison," the group said.

President Barack Obama addressed such issues in a speech at a Chicago conference of police chiefs earlier this week. He said that some people deserve to be in prison — the violent and those who assault children, for instance — but others don’t. He also noted the racial disparity in U.S. incarceration rates.  

“It’s important to acknowledge that having millions of black and Latino men in the criminal justice system, without any ability for most of them to find a job after release — and most of them will eventually be released — that's not a sustainable situation,” Obama said.

Many other challenges besides finding jobs await the newly released, said Anthony Papa, spokesman for the reform group Drug Policy Alliance. Papa spent 12 years in New York state prison on a cocaine charge and was released in 1997.

“They go back to same neighborhood, the bell rings, the same old habits get in,” he told Al Jazeera earlier this month. “Substance abuse problems are old habits that can kick in very easily.”

Some are skeptical that the release will benefit society. Joe Giacalone, a retired New York police officer who teaches criminology at the city’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said in an email Friday that newly released people still need supervision. He also said he doubts that these ex-inmates are not dangerous.

“These are federal drug offenders and not 'low level' users like some want us to believe,” he said in an email to Al Jazeera. “You don't go to federal prison for smoking a joint. If you got convicted federally then you were moving lots of drugs through sale, transport etc. They are more likely part of enterprises and organized crime.”

“People who make these decisions [on sentencing reform] don't live in the neighborhoods where these guys are going,” Giacalone said. “That's part of the problem.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter