What You Should Know About The Federal Inmate Release : The Two-Way Thousands of federal inmates are being released because of a change in the way the U.S. government sentences drug criminals, but few are going straight from prison to freedom.

What You Should Know About The Federal Inmate Release

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

We've arrived at a landmark moment in criminal justice. This week, thousands of drug offenders receive early release.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

They're walking out of federal prisons or halfway houses. They are beneficiaries of a nationwide change in ideas about who should be behind bars.

MONTAGNE: This first group is just the first wave. Tens of thousands of other prisoners may follow. For more, we reached NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How many people are getting out of prison early exactly? And what do we know about them?

JOHNSON: About 6,100 prisoners are getting out early. They're mostly Hispanic and black men who've been incarcerated for drug trafficking crimes. And, Renee, they're getting out early because judges looked at their cases and decided they deserved a break and shaved off, on average, about two years from the sentence. This all goes back to a big decision last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal crimes. The commission, Democrats and Republicans, voted to make changes to the drug laws retroactive for inmates who are already serving prison time.

MONTAGNE: And how does this work, Carrie? Are all these prisoners going to be released in a single day?

JOHNSON: An emphatic no. About 4,000 inmates will end up serving shorter sentences. But many of them have already been living in halfway houses or home confinement for the past few months to ease their transition back to the community. They'll be going back to places like Texas and Florida and California in large numbers, also North Carolina and Illinois. But, Renee, there are also about 1,700 inmates who are undocumented immigrants. And those people will not be released from federal custody.

MONTAGNE: And, Carrie, what will happen to these undocumented immigrants?

JOHNSON: They're being transferred to ICE, which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And authorities there are going to start deportation proceedings against many of them. Some of those immigrants may be on the hook for state or local crimes, so officials are checking records across the country. And, Renee, members of Congress are already asking a lot of questions. What's happening to these undocumented inmates? The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Bob Goodlatte, has sent letters to the Obama administration saying he wants those people moved out of the U.S. rapidly, and he's going to stay on the case.

MONTAGNE: All right, who is going to be monitoring all of those returning prisoners who are Americans, and they'll be inside the U.S.?

JOHNSON: OK, so remember that a judge has already considered each case and made a determination about public safety. The probation office will be watching these prisoners for a specific period of time. They've been preparing for this release for more than a year now. And they've beefed up hiring of probation officers, devoting more resources to inmates who pose the biggest risk. And they say, Renee, though, that the system is not perfect. Halfway houses are overstuffed. And there's not a lot of money to smooth out the transition, so there are some open questions about the quality of services they're getting, like drug treatment and job placement.

MONTAGNE: Well, finally, all of these prisoners coming out have been convicted of drug crimes. But are all of those crimes nonviolent ones?

JOHNSON: Not necessarily. These people served time in federal prison, and federal prosecutors usually don't spend time and resources to send people away for simple drug possession. Usually, the offense here has been a drug-trafficking type of crime. They or their partner in crime may have used a weapon. But judges considered all those factors when granting them early release. And most of the time, judges approved the request anyway. Look, I know people are concerned about an increase in crime - a possible increase in crime here. Remember that most of these inmates were going to get out anyway, maybe just two or three years from now.

MONTAGNE: That's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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