RALEIGH, N.C. — A push to overhaul criminal sentencing is prompting the early release of thousands of federal drug prisoners, including more than 200 in North Carolina.
About 6,000 inmates are due to be freed from custody in the coming month, the result of changes made last year to guidelines that provide judges with recommended sentences for specific crimes. Federal officials say roughly 40,000 inmates could be eligible for reduced sentences in coming years.
Many of them are small-time drug dealers targeted by an approach to drug enforcement now condemned by many as overly harsh and expensive. But an AP analysis of nearly 100 court cases also identified defendants who carried semi-automatic weapons, had past convictions for robbery and other crimes, moved cocaine shipments across states, and participated in international heroin smuggling.
On November 1, about 100 inmates in eastern North Carolina will be paroled back into society.
“I think it is going to be a challenge,” said U.S. Attorney Thomas Walker. “We are working with federal probation, we are working with re-entry counselors to come up with a plan.”
Walker said the challenge is that federal probation is overbooked, even without an influx of new releases.
“They have more to do than they can do, and this will only add to that burden,” he said.
Once out of prison, Walker said it is ultimately up to the freed prisoners to take advantage of transition opportunities. He said he also understands that people may feel uneasy about the massive release of inmates.
“I understand that concern, but I am also quick to add that on average, we are talking about an eleven month reduction on inmates who served significant prison sentences,” Walker said.
Walker said his staff is challenging petitions of violent offenders and those who break the rules in prison.