Column: Release of 6,000 inmates a small step for Department of Justice

President Barack Obama goes up the stairs as he boards Air Force One at San Francisco International Airport, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 in San Francisco. Obama is on a four-day West Coast tour that includes democratic fundraisers along the way. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

After votes last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce penalties for non-violent drug crimes and examine current unjust sentences, the Justice Department is planning for the early release of 6,000 inmates this month. While many civil rights groups are praising the action as an impressive step in combating rampant mass incarceration in America, more immediate actions should be taken.

Much like President Barack Obama’s commutation of prison sentences for 46 nonviolent drug offenders this past July, the early release of 6,000 prisoners based on modern reductions in sentencing laws seems like a small, modest action to take. It is important to note that about a third of the inmates to be released by the department are undocumented immigrants, who will proceed to deportation hearings at the end of the month.

The planned release of 6,000 prisoners at the end of October, despite being touted as the largest one-time release of federal prisons in American history, seems to be little more than surface level action. According to the Department of Justice, 10,000 prisoners are released from state and federal prisons every week. With the United States’ prison population still at a stark 2.2 million and counting, many are demanding the government take more immediate actions.

“The U.S. incarceration rate is seven times higher than the median for [economically advanced nations], so reforming it in a meaningful way requires more than a token gesture,” writes prison reform activist Keri Blakinger in a column for the Washington post. “It means changing how we use jails and prisons in sentencing and drastically reducing the prison population by not 1 or 5 percent, but 60 or 80 percent.”

U.S. Sentencing Commission officials voted unanimously for reductions in sentencing guidelines after public hearings, testimony from former Attorney General Eric Holder and more than 80,000 public comment letters supporting changes, according to the Washington Post. With restrictive, harsh sentences serving as common guidelines, court and prison systems disproportionately affect marginalized, lower-income and mentally ill Americans. 

In studies dated back to 2006, the Department of Justice found that “symptoms of serious mental illnesses” affected 64 percent of local inmates, 56 percent of state prison inmates and 45 percent of federal prison inmates. Analysis within the study labeled the statistics “a scandal and a national tragedy,” though not much has changed since.

With such a huge percentage of inmates affected by mental illness, politicians should push for more than just the release of prisoners or the revision of sentencing guidelines, but a substantial reallocation of resources to address mental health. According to reports by the Hamilton Project, an organization seeking to maximize American opportunity and growth, the United States allocated more than $80 billion to prison and correction expenditures in 2010. By putting more resources behind mental health services, prison populations can be lowered, recidivism rates can be decreased and the United States can spend more efficiently.

A study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in 2010 found that over 1.5 million prisoners also meet the medical criteria for drug addiction, and only 11 percent of those affected receive any form of treatment for addiction while incarcerated.

Such clear, startling statistics make obvious the need for politicians and justice officials to completely overhaul the American prison system. Revising sentencing guidelines retroactively is an important part of bringing justice to those afflicted by “tough on crime” policies enacted through the late 20th century, but helping 6,000 prisoners at a time is a rather slow way to start.

Even in the event that more sentencing guidelines are reduced for non-violent offenders, the mentally ill and those suffering from drug addiction, Americans still face thoroughly discriminatory law enforcement and prison structures. As a result, even the release of 6,000 prisoners is something to question and examine. Celebrating the release of 6,000 cannot mean forgetting about the vast numbers of individuals who also don’t belong in American prisons.

More than 20 years after President Bill Clinton signed his signature crime bill into law in 1994, many are expecting the debate on mass incarceration to become a central part of the 2016 presidential race. With a forward-thinking president and a fast acting Department of Justice, swift and fast-acting reform could be just around the corner–6,000 prisoners is a small place to start.


Bennett Cognato is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at bennett.cognato@uconn.edu.