Starting next week, federal prison inmates from Alaska facing an average conviction of a decade behind bars for drug offenses will be released early.
The sentence reductions resulted from revisions by an independent judicial body; its new policy could mean shorter imprisonment for tens of thousands of inmates nationwide.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the penalties for all future federal drug defendants in April 2014. Several months later, the commission granted those reductions to drug offenders already in prison, but its decision to retroactively apply the changes stipulated that no drug offender could be released until a year after the changes came into effect on Nov. 1, 2014.
Here in Alaska, 80 prisoners so far have qualified for reduced sentences under changes made by the commission, but the process is continuing.
"There have been some more reductions granted" since the commission's latest report, said Rich Curtner, federal public defender for the District of Alaska. "I get a few new ones each week. There are still some people who may be eligible who haven't filed motions themselves, so we may reach out to them."
The state's federal prosecutors and public defenders started reviewing cases last November involving drug offenders who were potentially eligible for early release thanks to the changes in sentencing guidelines.
The Bureau of Prisons will release 6,000 federal prisoners who were granted reductions starting in November, but the total number could eventually reach about 46,000, according to the commission.
Ninety-five Alaska inmates applied to have their sentences reduced. Fifteen such cases were denied, according to the commission's data.
The number of Alaska inmates getting reduced sentences pales in comparison to Texas, the state with the highest number of reductions granted. A total of 2,501 prisoners from the Lone Star State are getting early releases. Florida ranks second, with 863 prisoners granted reductions. Alaska ranks 39th, ahead of Colorado, Michigan and Nevada, among other states.
Nationally, most denials for reductions were due to inmates not meeting certain criteria -- their crimes involved firearms or were seen as more serious because of the use of force or violence. Judges cited "protection of the public" 119 times in denials. Inmates' behavior in prison was used to deny 63 cases.
Prosecutors can also object to prisoners seeking early releases through the revisions. However, Karen Loeffler, U.S. attorney in Alaska, said her office did not object to the majority of reductions sought and presented by the public defender's office.
"Most of the ones we objected to are simply because they don't qualify under the rules," Loeffler said. "It's a small handful that we've objected to, in essence, for a public safety purpose. Either they've had violent conduct in prison or the underlying offense was horrific and violent, and we believe there's a hazard to the community."
"It's single digits, a very small number," she said.
National media outlets have reported thousands of inmates will be released at once, but Curtner said the detail of the "largest one-time release" of prisoners isn't entirely accurate. Some of the Alaska inmates counted in the most recent data have additional time to serve even after the reductions take effect, he said.
The sentencing commission reported that the average original sentence for the 80 Alaska inmates granted reductions was about 10 1/2 years, or 125 months. The average reduction was 20 months, according to the data.
Alaska has no federal prison facilities, so prisoners convicted of federal crimes are housed out of state. Some of the inmates granted early release have already returned north this month, filling halfway house beds in preparation for re-entering the state's communities full-time.
Curtner noted that the dozens of prisoners coming home to Alaska saves the Bureau of Prisons millions. The bureau's latest yearly cost estimate per inmate was $29,291. A single year without the Alaska inmates housed in federal prisons saves $2.3 million.
But the benefits go beyond saving money, Curtner said.
"The value of life for not only the clients but their families is much more important than the monetary value," he said. "There are still bills floating in Congress about mandatory minimums, and there's a coalition right now that is looking at reforming laws, because everybody recognizes how much money and time people are spending on incarceration."
Pushes to reform criminal justice are coming from both sides of American politics, with arguments for more support and job opportunities for ex-cons and increasing rhetoric that reforms are fiscally responsible.
But there are others who argue rushed attempts to reduce prison populations could have dire consequences on public safety.
In response to such arguments, Loeffler said the community plays an integral part in the success of released prisoners. Help from supporting services will ensure they have the needed resources, she said.
"Every person who comes back and does not commit more crimes because they have a job and housing is a plus for the community in two ways: they're contributing members and they're not committing more crimes," Loeffler said.
Curtner, who has spent much of his career defending those accused of serious crimes, said he's never personally felt reducing prison populations is a cause for concern.
"These people (who recently got reductions) are non-violent drug offenders who have completed treatment in prison, and they don't pose much of a risk," he said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing