Editorial Board

How to Release Prisoners Without Increasing Crime

Letting thousands of criminals apply for early release from federal prison will extend a measure of mercy to many who have already done hard time. But the White House should be prepared for the risks.
Getting out can go a long way for everyone. Photographer: Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama's decision to let thousands of convicted criminals apply for early release from federal prison is morally sound, fiscally sane and politically astute. It's also, as Obama surely knows, playing with fire.

The Justice Department's plan would offer the chance of clemency to prisoners who have served 10 years of a sentence that would probably be much less if imposed today. They also must have clean prison records, no history of violence, a short rap sheet, and no connection to gangs or organized crime.

This decision will help reverse decades of unduly punitive sentences and extend a measure of mercy to many people who have already done hard time, and then some.

It will also help lower the outrageous costs of keeping so many people locked up for so long. The federal prison population has soared almost 10-fold since 1980, and half the 216,265 inmates are in for drug offenses. Each one costs taxpayers $26,359 a year, eating up almost a third of the Justice Department's budget.

The move is also alert to a decisive swing in public opinion against overly harsh sentences for nonviolent criminals.

And it's in line with a broader political shift. Attorney General Eric Holder last month expressed support for a proposal by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to lessen its recommended sentences for nonviolent federal drug crimes. Congress is also considering a bill that would cut mandatory minimum sentences, give judges more discretion and reduce the sentences of some existing prisoners.

All that said, the White House should be prepared for the risks this decision entails.

As New York state's experience after reforming drug laws in 2009 attests, a surge in crime isn't inevitable when prisoners are freed on a large scale. Even so, many liberated federal convicts will have little in the way of resources. Many have scant education. Almost half suffer from drug or alcohol problems. Most will be branded as ex-cons for life, with diminished job prospects. And all have been conditioned for years in the manners and mores of the federal pen.

In short: Many will end up back in the clink. And a public backlash could jeopardize much of the recent progress toward reforming the criminal-justice system.

So simply setting them free isn't enough; the Justice Department will have to do more to keep them on the straight and narrow. How to do that is a difficult challenge. Yet decades of accumulated experience, and the data, are pretty emphatic on a few points.

Conducting rigorous risk assessments on inmates is essential, for instance, as is ensuring that supervision programs -- such as probation, which many of the prisoners would still face after their sentences are commuted -- recognize that each ex-con will respond differently to any given set of treatments, inducements and punishments. A study last year found that prisoners who participated in educational programs before their release were 43 percent less likely to end up back behind bars. Substance-abuse and mental-health programs are also demonstrably effective. And individualized re-entry plans, focused on things such as finding jobs and housing, have had notable success at the state level.

The Justice Department, along with a slew of other federal agencies, has started down the road to reforming how it helps ex-convicts. It will have a lot of work ahead of it, especially as more prisoners are granted clemency. This effort won't be without risks, but then mercy rarely is.