Thousands Return Home From Federal Prison as Sentencing Reforms Take Effect


An estimated 6112 people were released from federal prison over the first weekend in November as long-awaited changes in drug sentencing laws became effective.

Half of the people incarcerated in America’s overcrowded federal prisons are serving sentences for drug convictions, and in April 2014, the United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to reduce the sentencing guidelines for many drug offenses and made those changes retroactive. The commission required the federal Bureau of Prisons to wait until now to begin releasing people impacted by the changes.

The initial group of 6000 released this month had sentences that averaged 10.5 years and were reduced to an average of 8.5 years, according to the Justice Department. Another 8550 people may be released by this time next year, and a total of 46,000 people are eligible for resentencing.

The Bureau of Prisons reported that only about 1000 people will go home directly. About 3350 are already in halfway houses or home confinement, working, studying, and preparing to live independently. Another 1764 are facing possible deportation and will be detained by the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The majority of people incarcerated for drug convictions in the United States are in state prisons. Those 208,000 people will receive no relief as a result of these federal sentencing reforms.

The reforms will reduce the federal prison population by a few percentage points at best. Much more needs to be done to reduce overcrowding in our federal prisons, where some 205,000 people currently are imprisoned. Bills now before Congress would provide some relief by reducing the use of mandatory minimums.