1,200 Local Drug Inmates Could Get Early Release

Thousands of federal inmates, many in San Diego, serving sentences for drug crimes are set for early release next month under a cost-cutting measure intended to reduce the nation's prison population.

The more than 5,500 inmates set to go free in November are among the first of what could eventually be tens of thousands eligible for release. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted last year to retroactively apply substantially lower recommended sentences for those convicted of drug-related felonies.

The commission, an independent panel that sets federal sentencing policy, estimated the prison terms would be cut by an average of 25 months.

In the Southern District, attorney Michael Marks’ office has been appointed by the commission to review all 1,200 cases in San Diego and Imperial counties. Of the 1,200, Marks estimates 200 to 300 inmates will actually get their sentences reduced, and 100 of those will stay in the district in halfway houses, he said.

The San Diego probation department is preparing for an influx of people. Most of the other cases involve inmates who are not U.S. citizens, so Marks expects them to be deported.

Under the program, a judge reviews each prisoner's case to decide if his or her release would jeopardize public safety. Most of those eligible for consideration have already served 10 years or more.

They are also non-violent, first-time drug offenders with no criminal history prior to the conviction, according to Marks.

The Justice Department estimates that roughly 40,000 prisoners could benefit from the program in the coming years.

While inmates will begin to be released on Nov. 1, Marks said it will not be a mass exodus. The process will continue for many months.

The changes are part of a national bipartisan effort to rethink decades-long sentences for drug offenders, who are roughly half the federal prison population.

Reform advocates have long criticized sentencing disparities rooted in 1980s War on Drugs legislation that targeted crack cocaine.

The Justice Department issued new clemency criteria last year designed to encourage thousands of additional inmates to seek an early release. Two years ago, then-Attorney General Eric Holder directed federal prosecutors to avoid seeking mandatory minimum sentences - which limit the discretion of judges to impose shorter sentences - for nonviolent drug offenders.

Though sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, judges still rely heavily on them in deciding on prison sentences. The guidelines recommend sentences that factor in the types and quantities of the drugs. The commission in April voted to lower recommended sentences across all types of drug offenses - meaning, for instance, that a cocaine package of a given size would now be linked to a shorter range of punishment than before.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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