WASHINGTON — The gates of the federal prison system swung open Friday for 2,200 inmates who were freed under the terms a new law aimed at reducing the government's costly inmate population and easing their transition back to the free world.
The mass exodus was triggered under a provision of the First Step Act, signed into law in December, that increased the number of days prisoners can have shaved off their sentences for good behavior.
Another 900 inmates whose sentences ended early were being transferred to immigration authorities or state officials because they had pending criminal cases or deportation orders.
Deputy Attorney Jeffrey Rosen also unveiled a new system for evaluating all federal inmates, based their needs for rehabilitation and risk of re-offending, that could speed their paths toward release.
"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.
The new law represents a sea change in criminal justice policy which once advocated for the harshest punishments possible for offenders, including non-violent drug addicts who were swept up in en mass during the crack epidemic of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The reversal, largely driven by spiraling prison costs and racial disparities in the enforcement of such punitive measures has garnered support of an unusual political alliance that includes Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, and the man he hopes to unseat, President Donald Trump.
The law gives judges more discretion in sentencing non-violent drug offenders, and eases some of the long mandatory-minimum sentences for convicts with only minor criminal records. It allows the government to more easily release seriously ill inmates and seeks to reconcile extreme sentencing disparities between people who sell crack compared to powdered cocaine. That provision alone has already freed 1,093 inmates and led to shorter sentences for 1,600 others.
Most of those freed Friday, officials said, were released from halfway houses where they were completing the last portions of their sentences.
Drug offenders represented the largest portion of the released inmates, while others had completed terms for firearms crimes, sex offenses and robbery.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Federal prisons free 2,200 inmates inmates as First Step Act kicks in