Who gets released when drug sentences are relaxed?

Sens. Grassley, Cornyn, Lee, Flake, and (inevitably) Lindsey Graham have teamed up with liberal Democrats like Sens. Leahy, Durbin, and Schumer to push legislation that will result in the release of major drug felons, some of whom brought guns along when they committed their crimes. Hoping to increase the momentum for this sort of leniency, the Washington Post presents a warm front-page profile of a “non-violent drug offender” who was granted clemency by President Obama after 21 years in prison.

To get a more realistic, less anecdotal picture of the kinds of felons likely to be released under the the proposed Senate legislation, we should examine a more analogous leniency project. AP reports that “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 estimate that 40,000 more inmates could be eligible for reduced sentences in coming years under the same program.

The release of so many criminals is the outgrowth of a vote by the liberal U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentencing ranges for drug offenses. Offenders who are already in prison and whose time would fully have been served under the new regime can apply to court for early release. The same sort of thing would occur under Chairman Grassley’s legislation, which reduces certain mandatory minimum sentences, because it applies retroactively.

To discover who is being let out of prison under the current release program, AP analyzed nearly 100 court cases. It found 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.

For example, one beneficiary of he new leniency helped run a drug-dealing organization, shot at someone he believed had stolen from him and, after fleeing as warrants were served, was found in a stolen car with an assault rifle and other guns. This was in 2008. He will be out of jail next year.

Another drug offender cleared for release next month had prior assault and theft convictions. Another sold pistols and cocaine to undercover officers. Notwithstanding all the current talk about gun violence, both the current release program and the one supported by Sens. Grassley, Cornyn, Lee, etc. seem little bothered by guns offenses.

Another felon cleared for release was described by prosecutors as a “calamity waiting to happen.” He’s from Washington D.C. I doubt that any U.S. Senators will encounter him on the street, but other D.C. residents won’t be so lucky.

Were the prosecutors exaggerating? Possibly. The prisoners quoted by AP all view themselves as good people who made a “mistake” and now see the light. But I’m inclined to take the word of prosecutors over the self-serving statements of criminals.

Moreover, the prisoners’ claims of reformation are hard to reconcile with the leniency crowd’s claims about prison. Prisons are said to be, and often likely are, very cruel places. We also hear that Islamic extremists are sometimes influential there.

How realistic is it to suppose that offenders released early from this environment will have been reformed? It seems more realistic to fear they will be even more hardened.

And what of the environment to which the drug offenders will be released — one characterized by escalating drug trafficking and (thanks partly, I believe, to prisoner release programs by states)? I agree with Bill O’Reilly who last night, having cited the alarming recent spike in violent crime, said:

After the mass prison release this month, expect violent crime to rise even more. The drug trade is violent on its face and everybody knows it.

The myth that peddling hard drugs is a non-violent act is dangerous and irresponsible. And many of our leaders simply don’t care.

Unfortunately, a growing number of Republicans are among those leaders.