Hundreds of Hawaii prisoners are among the thousands of federal drug offenders scheduled to be released starting next week under an initiative aimed at relieving prison overcrowding and mitigating the effects of what many see as draconian sentencing policies.

The first wave of the early releases, set to begin on Oct. 30, will involve about 6,000 drug offenders nationwide — the largest one-time release of federal inmates in history.

In Hawaii, the Federal Bureau of Prisons will release 31 inmates between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2, with an additional 110 scheduled to be freed in coming months.

In all, 297 inmates in Hawaii are eligible for the early releases, according to an August estimate from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent panel that sets federal sentencing policy.

Federal Detention Center.

Federal Detention Center.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The early releases stem from the Sentencing Commission’s decision last year to reduce the length of sentences for lower-level drug offenders and to make that change retroactive.

An estimated 46,000 inmates became eligible for sentence reduction under the new guidelines, according to the Sentencing Commission.

For the past year, the federal courts have been reviewing each petition for sentence reduction and weeding out inmates whose release might pose a risk to public safety.

In Hawaii, all of the 141 petitioners have been approved for sentence reduction, according the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

As of July 24, more than 13,000 inmates — about 75 percent of all petitioners — have been approved for an average reduction of 25 months. That will shave their sentences down to nine years, on average, from nearly 11 years, according to the Sentencing Commission.

The Bureau of Prisons says about 6,000 of them — those who have already served their reduced sentences — will be released next week; the rest will trickle out in the years to come.

About two-thirds of those released will be placed in halfway houses or under home confinement before being put on supervised release. The remaining third are non-U.S. citizens who will face deportation proceedings.

In Hawaii, all of the 141 petitioners have been approved for sentence reduction, according the Sentencing Commission.

The Bureau of Prisons has not disclosed the identities of the Hawaii inmates who will be released. But Felix Mata, chief U.S. probation officer for Hawaii, says most of those released from the federal detention center in Honolulu will be out on supervised release, instead of going to a halfway house in Iwilei.

‘Welcome Move’

For President Barack Obama, the early releases represent a significant step in his efforts to reform the criminal justice system, a mission now picking up steam with both parties in Congress.

The work has garnered praise from prison-reform advocates, who have long argued that harsh drug policies disproportionately affect the poor and minorities.

But it’s drawn criticism from some law enforcement officials, who worry about the impact of a large-scale release.

Last year, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys opposed the retroactive application of the new sentencing guidelines, declaring that it “constitutes a grave danger to public safety.”

“We need to consider the consequence of having nonviolent drug offenders tossed into prisons and the keys basically thrown away.” — Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii

“Those who will shoulder the greatest burden will be those who already have disproportionately paid the price — members of minority groups, particularly those in the inner cities who have been the victims of the violence associated with drug trafficking,” the association wrote to the Sentencing Commission. “For them, the reduction of the sentences imposed on the traffickers of heroin, meth and other dangerous drugs will only return more crimes to their neighborhoods, not less.”

But advocates points to a study showing that inmates released early aren’t any more likely to reoffend than those who serve their full sentences.

Last year, the Sentencing Commission found that the recidivism rate of offenders who were released early after the 2007 changes in sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine was not significantly different from that of offenders who completed their sentences.

And this isn’t the first time that a large group of nonviolent offenders has been released at once. In 2011, California was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court to release more than 30,000 inmates to relieve overcrowding.

As it turned out, after the so-called public-safety realignment, California’s crime rates actually declined.

A study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that property and violent crime rates declined to historic lows; the only crime that saw an increase was auto theft.

Carl Bergquist, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, says the mass incarceration of drug offenders has been far more damaging to society than a large-scale release could be.

“We need to consider the consequence of having nonviolent drug offenders tossed into prisons and the keys basically thrown away. That’s not good for the individuals. That’s not good for the community and families. And it doesn’t contribute to any kind of rehabilitation to just have people forgotten and locked up,” Bergquist said. “That’s why the federal government’s move is a welcome step and hopefully an acknowledgment of further changes to come.”

Other advocates are quick to note that it’s important to have programs in place to help ex-offenders transition to the real world.

“Most of these drug offenders are addicts. We need to help them overcome their underlying problems, so they can get to the place where they can figure out how they’re going to create a good life for themselves,” said Lorenn Walker, executive director of Hawaii Friends of Restorative Justice. “Instead, we’ve been trying to use the criminal-justice system to deal with these problems — and it doesn’t work.”

About the Author