The gates of federal prisons across the country swung open on Friday releasing over 3,100 inmates. The mass exodus was part of a new law aimed at reducing the government’s financial burden in the prison system and helping prisoners transition back to society.
Most of those freed were released from halfway houses where they were completing the last portions of their sentences. The Bureau of Prisons declined to provide any specific details about the inmates being released, citing privacy concerns, according to ABC News.
The First Step Act was signed into law in December by President Donald Trump, according to CNN. It effectively increased the number of days prisoners can shave off their sentences for good behavior. The number of freed inmates was determined through a recalculation of the number of good behavior days inmates had accrued and applied retroactively in accordance with the new law.
Another 900 inmates whose sentences ended early were transferred to immigration authorities or state officials due to pending criminal cases or deportation orders.
As the prisoners were released across the country, Deputy Attorney Jeffrey Rosen unveiled a new evaluation system for federal inmates that could lead to a speedier path to freedom based on rehabilitation requirements and the risk of re-offending.
“While we believe this tool to predict recidivism is an improvement over the existing system, we also recognize that there is room for additional change as we continue through the implementation process and gather more data,” Rosen said.
Rosen also announced that $75 million in funding will be redirected from existing Justice Department programs to carry out the First Step Act for the remainder of the fiscal year. The bipartisan act is part of an overarching prison reform trend in federal policies.
“The attorney general and I both recently toured federal prisons and we saw first-hand the tremendous value in quality programs for inmates,” Rosen said. “Using top-of-the-line research, people and technology, the Department intends to implement this law forcefully, fully and on time, with the goal of reducing crime, enhancing public safety and strengthening the rule of law.”
The sands of change are credited mostly to the heavy load of prison costs.
The new law will also allow for more flexible sentences for non-violent drug offenders, as well as easing some mandatory-minimum sentences for convicts with minor criminal records. It also allows the government to release seriously ill inmates and seeks to reconcile extreme sentencing disparities between people who sell crack compared to powdered cocaine. That one provision has already freed 1,093 inmates and led to shorter sentences for 1,600 others.
Criminal justice advocates praised the announcements, but noted that more needed to be done to ensure the reform effort is fully funded and appropriately supervised.
“This is good news and we’re happy to see that it’s starting to be implemented but we think more needs to be done and we think Congress needs to provide that oversight,” said Inimai Chettiar, of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan justice advocacy group.
There will also be a public comment period and several “listening sessions” in the coming months for advocates and others to share thoughts about the act, according to ABC News.