WASHINGTON (CNN) — In a move to reduce prison overcrowding and provide relief to inmates given harsh sentences in drug cases, the federal Bureau of Prisons will grant early release to about 6,000 inmates beginning later this month, officials confirmed to CNN.
The mass release is the largest in the Bureau of Prisons history and the first wave of what could be tens of thousands of early releases, officials said.
The mass release was triggered by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which lowered maximum sentences for drug offenders last year and made the change retroactive.
Even with the Sentencing Commission’s reductions, drug offenders will have served substantial prison sentences, said Sally Quillian Yates, a deputy attorney general with the Justice Department.
Moreover, the reductions are not automatic, she said. Under the commission’s directive, federal judges are required to carefully consider public safety in deciding whether to reduce an inmate’s sentence.
“The Department of Justice strongly supports sentencing reform for low-level, non-violent drug offenders,” Quillian Yates said.
Once inmates are released, she said, probation officers “are working hard to ensure that returning offenders are adequately supervised and monitored.”
About one-third of the 6,000 inmates slated for release between October 30 and November 2 are non-citizens so they will be turned over to U.S. Immigration Custom Enforcement officials for deportation proceedings, according to one Justice Department official.
The prisoners have served an average of nine years and were due to be released in about 18 months, the official said. Many were already in half-way houses.
The releases come amid a surge in murders and violent crimes in many cities around the country — a trend that FBI Director James Comey noted during a recent press briefing at FBI headquarters.
Comey told reporters no one seems to be able to explain increases of 30% to 50% in murders in a wide variety of cities with little in common.
“Something very worrisome is going on,” he said Thursday.
He added that his concern will cause him to be “thoughtful” about ongoing moves to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.