Late October saw the start of the largest release of federal prisoners in the history of the United States. Across the country the federal prison system is releasing convicts from federal penitentiaries who are serving sentences for non-violent drug crimes.
These prisoners are being released because of a July 2014 change in sentencing laws that was based on a lengthy and thorough review and report commissioned by the federal government. The changes occurring in the federal prison system rethink decades-long sentences for drug offenders and are the result of a bipartisan effort. Prior to the planned releases, non-violent drug offenders comprised roughly half the federal prison population. The release of theses prisoners are part of an effort to ease prison overcrowding and to better rehabilitate those convicted of federal drug-related crimes.
How Sentencing Changes Affect South Carolina
South Carolina has four federal prisons: Edgefield, Salters, Estill and Bennettsville. Over 100 inmates from these institutions were set to be freed in late October. Their release will be the first round of releases.
Well over 400 prisoners will be freed in South Carolina. Once these individuals are set free, they will be supervised and under the control of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services Department. Nearly 70 percent of those scheduled to be freed in South Carolina are already residing in halfway houses and receiving substance abuse treatment. Under the new law, individuals in halfway houses are among those slated to be freed. Once freed the former inmates will be under the supervision of assigned probation officers. These former inmates will be on probation for the term of probation that was set at their original sentencing and intended to follow their imprisonment.
Prior to the release of these non-violent offenders, the federal prison system housed approximately 94,000 non-violent offenders. This number is almost three times the number of those imprisoned in the federal system for violent offenses. The majority of those being released are from the South, with South Carolina releasing more than 400 people. Many of those imprisoned were guilty of relatively minimal drug offenses and were sent to jail under sentencing guidelines now considered too harsh and now revised.
When granting freedom, reviewers in the federal system considered each case and made individualized decisions regarding sentence reduction. Many of these prisoners slated for release have participated in programs and already bettered their lives while behind bars. Many prisoners who had behavior or further criminal issues while behind bars were often denied release. Some offenders had already spent 25 years in prison.
If an inmate who is not a citizen is released, that individual will be deported to his native country.
As we look to the future, sentencing for drug-related, non-violent offenses may take a different path than a path straight to prison. Hopefully the services that can be provided to these people will help them lead a healthier, more productive life complete with better choices about drugs.