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Justice Department to release 35 drug offenders in Arizona

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

PHOENIX — Thirty-five inmates will be released soon in Arizona as part of a Justice Department decision aimed at reducing prison populations and providing relief to drug offenders.

The Washington Post reports the 35 will either be sent to halfway houses or home confinement before being granted supervised released. Any foreign citizens will eventually be deported.

The inmates will be released between Oct. 30 and Nov. 2.

Justice Department officials told the publication most of the inmates being released are drug offenders who have served 8 1/2 years of a 10 1/2 year sentence, though some may have served longer or been given life sentences.

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.

Supporters of lighter drug sentences say there’s no evidence that longer punishment protects public safety. Studies show that inmates released early aren’t more likely to reoffend than those who serve their entire sentences.

Still, the broad spectrum of defendants granted early release — including some about whom prosecutors not long ago raised dire warnings — underscores the complex decisions confronting the government as it pursues an overhaul of drug sentencing.

“I’m a career prosecutor. I’m a law-and-order girl, and I believe that you need to send dangerous people to prison for a very long time,” said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. “But I think that we need to be smart about deciding who are those dangerous people.”

Guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission offer recommended minimum and maximum terms for federal crimes. The independent commission voted last year to reduce ranges for drug offenses, then applied those changes to already-imprisoned convicts.

Since then, prisoners have sought relief from judges, who can reject those they consider public safety threats. About three-quarters of requests had been granted as of August.

Though the commission has repeatedly tinkered with the guidelines, including narrowing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences that resulted in disproportionately long penalties for blacks defendants, the latest revision is its most sweeping because it covers all drug types.

The commission delayed implementation by a year to allow judges time to review requests and weed out inappropriate candidates and so defendants could be moved to halfway houses.

“Nothing to date comes close to what this shift is likely to produce over the next decade or so, starting this year,” said Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

The action, along with an Obama administration clemency initiative and directives against mandatory minimum sentences, is part of a national effort to rethink punishments for a drug offender population that comprises roughly half the federal inmate count.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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