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As many crack convicts are freed early, will crime rise

Of the 19,500 drug offenders eligible over the next 30 years to apply for early release, 3,417 have had their sentences reduced as of Monday.

Mukasey: Convicts released early are likely to commit crimes, the attorney general warns.

Ali Abbas/Reuters/file

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In an effort to eliminate a legal inequity – one that has hit African-Americans especially hard – federal judges have begun reducing the sentences of thousands of crack-cocaine offenders.

Some police groups and prosecutors, as well as US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, assert that in trying to right a historic wrong, violent criminals are headed en masse back to the streets.

So far, indications are that this is not the case because the release process has safeguards built in. Statistics from the US Sentencing Commission, as well as interviews with federal public defenders and criminal-justice experts, indicate that federal prisoners who are to be released early are predominantly nonviolent and have good conduct records while in prison. Of the 19,500 drug offenders eligible over the next 30 years to apply for early release, 3,417 have had their sentences reduced as of Monday. Of the 1,500 inmates eligible for immediate release, dozens so far have been let go in the past month.

"There has been no release of a flood of violent criminals," says Michael Nachmanoff, federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. "The people who are being released ... overwhelmingly had cases where there was no violence whatsoever and who were given unduly harsh sentences. And now, their sentences are being reduced by a modest amount."

Critics worry the crime rate, which has already ticked upward, will continue to increase as more prisoners apply for a sentence reduction. The Justice Department, for example, has pointed out that according to the Sentencing Commission's own analysis, nearly 80 percent of the 19,500 who would be eligible for early release had prior criminal records. Of the 1,500 eligible for immediate release, about one-quarter carried a weapon or were with someone who carried a weapon when they were arrested.

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