Thousands of Released Prisoners May Help Reform America’s Criminal Justice System (Video)

Criminal justice reform has been an agenda-topping issue for many Americans for decades, and it’s only in recent months that its visibility has landed into the living rooms of mainstream American politics. Just this year, President Obama became the first sitting president to visit federal inmates, a touching exchange caught by Vice’s cameras. The impetus for the meeting was the growing concern over the justice (or lack thereof) in prison sentencing, particularly as it applies to low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. In extreme (which is not to say uncommon) cases, Americans are locked up for long, long period of time for what are relatively harmless acts, such as possession of drugs. And, as has now become one of the most quoted statistics in reports on the issue, these sorts of criminal cases have become the tragic norm – with just about 5% of the world’s population, the United States houses 25% of the world’s inmates, in large part due to the incarceration of drug offenders. The outrage over these statistics is only compounded when the issue of race is included, as people of color are disproportionately victimized by the gross injustice that is endemic to our criminal justice system. And yet, it seems that the wholly justified outrage has at long last managed to trickle down into discernible, real-life results as recently as this past weekend.

Over Halloween weekend, more than 6,000 federal inmates were released early, a result of a two-tiered changing of the tides in American politics. First, the mounting pressure across the country in favor of undoing the harsh side effects of the War on Drugs, the offensive spearheaded by the Reagan administration, has led many politicians to address the issue. Secondly, the more practical concern that prisons are simply too crowded (most reports claim 50% of all federal inmates are drug offenders)  and it only makes fiscal and logical sense to solve the problem by releasing those inmates whose records show no indication of violence. According to a New York Times report entitled “Thousands Start Life Anew With Early Prison Releases,” “Over the next few years, as a result of an across-the-board adjustment of federal drug penalties by the United States Sentencing Commission, tens of thousands more inmates may benefit from reductions in their terms, and new sentences will be somewhat shorter than they were in recent decades.” This change will result in a bevy of new procedures, most of which will transfer more control in determining sentences to judges (as opposed to what have long been mandatory sentences as mandated by the law); as Times reporter Erik Eckholm writes, “A total of 46,000 current federal drug prisoners are eligible for resentencing, according to the commission, but so far, judges have turned down about one in four applicants.”

Clearly, there remains much work to be done in the movement for criminal justice reform but the outpouring of vociferous support in favor of overturning many of the mandatory sentences handed out to low-risk offenders is cause for celebration. It’s already being celebrated in popular culture, as evidenced in last night’s episode of “The Nightly Show,” in which host Larry Wilmore devoted an entire segment to the federal inmate release program. Through the show’ signature humor, the gravity of the issue is digested with comedy, but the sincerity of Wilmore’s reaction to the news is clear. Watch the clip below, and for more information on the criminal justice reform movement, visit the White House‘s official website.

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