The Federal Prisoner Release and the Role of Nonprofits

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October 29, 2015; The Marshall Project

The release of 6000 federal prisoners should have every nonprofit working in low-income communities considering the part they can play in easing their path to re-entry and in developing a sense of mutual accountability between those former prisoners and the community. This job should not be seen as exclusive to halfway houses, made up largely of nonprofit organizations. They alone can’t make re-entry happen smoothly, though they have been planning for this day since April 1st, 2014. That is when the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to reduce the sentencing guidelines for federal drug offenses and to make the reduction retroactive. Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984. The group is designed to be bipartisan and is comprised of federal judges with the goal of providing fairness in sentencing

The nonprofit Marshall Project, a single issue news site focusing on criminal justice, referred to this release as “the largest one-time release of federal prisoners,” but that “6,000” number is made up of only about 1,000 who are going straight home from their release. Just over 20 percent of the approximately 6,000 released will go directly to immigration detention centers to begin the deportation process. Over 3,000 have already left and are in halfway houses or being monitored electronically, also known as house arrest.

What has changed in the past 30 years to prompt the reconsideration of our country’s strict drug sentencing guidelines? There is, as we have mentioned before, a general bipartisan acknowledgement that over-incarceration is costing the country enormously on many levels, that the war on drugs was a failure, and that the sentences given to the prisoners of that war were too long to be justified.

Although this is the largest “one time” release, this isn’t the first or largest change in sentencing guidelines. The first major change happened in 2007, when over 16,000 federal prisoners had their sentences for crack cocaine possession reduced. As you follow this story, it is important to note that when U.S. Sentencing Commission completed a study to determine if those who received the reduced sentence reoffended more than those who did not receive a reeducated sentence, they had no significant findings.

How will all of this impact nonprofit work? For community-based nonprofits in low-income neighborhoods, issues of re-entry are everybody’s business. There will be job training and placement issues, health care issues, family life issues, and many more. The longer a former inmate’s stay of incarceration, the more severe these issues may be. The question that should be on top of everyone’s mind this morning is, “How can my nonprofit and my community play a part in actively reintegrating former prisoners?”

Separate from the release this weekend, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 was introduced in the Senate about a month ago. Because state and county jails also suffer the same burdens of overcrowding, most state and county governments already work with their own local nonprofits to create forensic community services for those arrested on drug charges. While the federal government takes center stage on a long overdue issue, states and their local nonprofits will be looking for a lead to follow. As with any business, nonprofit decision makers must be watching this unfold and planning for ways to be a key player in the future of reentry.

With the National Day of Prison and Reentry Nonprofits just five days away, maybe this year will significantly highlight the role that nonprofits play in reintegration of formerly incarcerated community members.—Melissa Whatley