Sixty-eight of the 4,348 drug trafficking convicts allowed to leave federal prison early and re-enter their communities this month under changes to federal sentencing guidelines were released in Louisiana, U.S. Department of Justice and federal prison officials said.
The total 6,112 offenders released — who include 1,764 federal prisoners turned over to immigration officials for possible deportation — are beneficiaries of continuing changes to sentencing guidelines for drug charges.
Proponents have celebrated these releases as a landmark step in creating what they contend are more responsible sentences for drug charges, saying the “War on Drugs” during the 1980s and ’90s resulted in clogged prisons and increased prison costs.
The idea of shortening drug sentences has won some bipartisan support in Washington, with both Republican and Democratic lawmakers backing the idea of reducing the number of people incarcerated in the federal system.
But this recent release has not been universally celebrated, most notably in Louisiana’s ongoing governor’s race. Republican U.S. Sen. David Vitter has decried the move as a public safety threat and attempted to tie his Democratic competitor, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, to this particular policy.
The changes to federal prison sentences were sparked by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency of the judicial branch that has been working to modify the complicated formula that federal courts use to set the boundaries of a defendant’s sentence.
“The people who are being released are people who shouldn’t be in at all. They’re people who got sentences that were enormously disproportional to the offenses that they committed. These are people who committed nonviolent, mostly drug offenses,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, one of several groups pushing for the sentencing changes.
Critics of the commission and the changes, which are retroactive, say they undermine the deterrent effect of the law and that earlier sentencing modifications for crack cocaine convictions have led to an increase in crime, including at least one murder in Tennessee.
“The people who are in federal prison need to be there,” said Steven Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.
More than 46,000 federal drug offenders nationally could ultimately win a reduced sentence that will play out over the years as offenders finish shortened prison terms — possibly 692 of them in Louisiana, it is estimated.
Some Louisiana federal prosecutors, public defenders and probation and halfway-house officials said the inmates being released are nonviolent, low-level drug offenders and were not considered career criminals under federal sentencing rules.
In Louisiana’s three federal court jurisdictions, officials from the U.S. attorneys’ offices, public defenders’ offices and probation and parole departments vetted inmates who might be eligible. A judge made the final decision, court officials said.
U.S. Attorney Walt Green, who leads the Baton Rouge-based Middle District of Louisiana, said that while many defendants were considered, those denied usually had violent pasts or were accused of much more serious crimes than their sentence might indicate.
“That is the type of people the judge would not approve,” he said.
Through Oct. 8, federal courts in Louisiana had considered 243 defendants and granted sentencing reductions to 174 of them, or about 72 percent, Sentencing Commission data say. Most defendants granted reductions still had more time to serve after Nov. 1, so they remain incarcerated, according to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
Though the Sentencing Commission adopted the changes in April 2014 and made them retroactive that July, the commission did not allow them to take effect until Nov. 1, 2015, so court systems could vet cases and consider public safety concerns, Sentencing Commission spokesman Matt Osterrieder said.
Half of the 68 prisoners in Louisiana who won a sentence reduction and an immediate release Nov. 1 went to halfway houses months ago. The other half were in home confinement or were released directly from prison Nov. 1, said David Ausiello, spokesman for the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys in Washington, D.C.
Darla O’Connor, executive director of Ecumenical House in Baton Rouge, said 13 prisoners released on or around Nov. 1 had been in her 35-bed facility, the Middle District’s sole halfway house.
She said she fears the public has a perception that officials are going to the “super max (prison) in Florence, Colorado, and just letting people walk out.”
She said she would not classify any of the 13 inmates that left her facility as violent. She said the inmates were close to being released anyway and been through a variety of prison programs. Most left with jobs.
Green said the average sentence was reduced from 10.5 to 8.5 years. He contended that, since the defendants served most of their sentences and go through same programs and safeguards of other offenders headed for release, the risk they posed to the public is no more than any other prisoner about to be released.
“They just got released two years early on average,” he said.
In the gubernatorial campaign, Vitter has accused Edwards of favoring the release of 5,500 state convicts in an ad that critics have asserted plays on racial fears and has drawn a rebuke from the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP. At the same time, Vitter also has attacked the current “dangerous” sentencing changes under President Barack Obama’s administration, what his campaign says is a “similar” program to what Edwards is proposing.
Edwards has said he has never suggested releasing prisoners but wants to reduce the state’s incarceration rate by addressing the “treatment of nonviolent offenders.”
While just a small number of inmates were released in Louisiana, Vitter’s campaign spokesman, Luke Bolar, emphasized that the release in total is the largest one-time release of federal prisoners, 24 percent of whom are not U.S. citizens.
The campaign also attacked the Sentencing Commission as being full of Obama appointees and said the changes were part of a broader Obama initiative.
“Louisiana is currently experiencing an increase in crime, and we cannot afford more criminals in our communities,” Vitter said in a statement.
His campaign also pointed to a letter U.S. Rep. Charles Boustany, R- Lafayette, sent to Obama asking him to reconsider the changes.
Cook, the president the U.S. Attorney group, is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Knoxville area. He pointed to the Roderick Bates case in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as an example of what can happen under early release. Bates, who was released under earlier changes to crack cocaine sentences, and an accomplice fatally shot a man in October 2011, about a month before Bates should have been released. Both men were sentenced to life in prison last year.
Advocates like Esman say one mistake should not keep thousands in prison too long. The Sentencing Commission has produced a study showing recidivism among defendants released under prior sentencing changes is no higher than defendants who served full sentences.
Green, who was nominated by Obama and unanimously confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2014, said the sentencing changes were a bipartisan effort in Congress that he believes is based on the economics of housing prisoners.
“We can’t afford to build any more prisons. We incarcerate more people than anybody else in the world and we don’t have the lowest crime rates,” Green said.
He pointed out that Congress, which had until Nov. 1, 2014, to block the changes, did not act. One bill was filed in the House, but it never left the subcommittee.
Neither the courts, sentencing commission nor the U.S. Bureau of Prisons would identify the prisoners, citing privacy concerns and federal law that bars making that information public.
Follow David J. Mitchell on Twitter @NewsieDave.