When a nation locks up as many people as indiscriminately as the United States does, even big numbers start to lose their meaning.
Take 6,000. That’s how many federal prisoners are to be released over a four-day period beginning Oct. 30 by the Justice Department, following a decision last year by the United States Sentencing Commission to reduce sentencing guidelines for many nonviolent drug crimes.
It is being called one of the largest discharges of inmates from federal prisons in American history. If this sounds frightening, perhaps a little perspective would help. For starters, more than 2.3 million people are behind bars in America. More than 10,000 of them are released from state and federal prisons every week, and more than 650,000 every year.
The department’s announcement is just a small part of a much broader effort to shrink overcrowded prisons and scale back unjustly long sentences. After conducting multiple hearings, the commission voted unanimously in April 2014 to reduce sentencing guidelines for many lower-level drug offenders. In July 2014 it voted to apply reductions to inmates serving unjustly long sentences, many of which were based on the weight of drugs involved, rarely a good measure of the seriousness of someone’s role in a drug-selling operation.
This reduction — for which an estimated 40,000 current prisoners will be eligible over the next five years — was supported by, among others, the Justice Department, Republican and Democratic members of Congress, and police chiefs in major cities.