On October 6th, news reports heralded a historic development: The world’s largest incarcerator, the United States of America, was about to make the largest one-time release of prisoners in its history. The U.S. Justice Department announced that it would be releasing some 6,000 inmates from federal prisons before the end of their original sentences. It’s the first wave of an even larger number of early releases — more than 13,000 in total. The news was trumpeted as further evidence that after decades of mandatory-minimum sentences, the pendulum of public policy has finally begun to swing back the other way.
But though the news was much hyped in the press, a close look shows just how difficult substantial change in sentencing policy continues to be. For one thing, the announced releases represent a fraction of the more than 205,000 people in federal prison. And federal prisons are just the tip of the iceberg — factor in state prisons and local jails, and there are 2.2 million people locked up in this country.