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In Phases, Federal Prison Release Of Inmates Has Begun

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Thousands of federal inmates are getting out of prison because of a change in the way the U.S. government sentences drug criminals. It's part of a broader movement to reconsider tough-on-crime laws that were passed during the War on Drugs. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: If you're thinking the Bureau of Prisons is going to open the doors and say goodbye to a flood of inmates, think again. The vast majority of the prisoners have already been living in halfway houses or in home confinement for months. In all about 4,300 drug offenders will have returned to their communities. By the numbers, Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Illinois could see the most. For the past year or so, federal judges across the country reviewed each individual case, and judges overwhelmingly determined these prisoners, mostly Hispanic and black men, deserved early release. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal crimes, approved the overall plan last year with support from leaders at the Justice Department. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates recently told Congress it's a myth that federal prisons only house the worst of the worst. When it comes to drug offenses, Yates said, only 16 percent of federal prison inmates used a weapon in connection with their crime.

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SALLY YATES: Half of them had little or no criminal history at all, and only 7 percent of them are leaders. So just those statistics alone should tell you that there's a fairly sizable group of folks out there that don't need to be serving a prison sentence for as long as they are.

JOHNSON: About one-third of the prisoners being released or about 1,700 people are undocumented immigrants who will be sent in to the Custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Authorities have already started deportation proceedings in some cases. Republican lawmakers say they'll keep a close watch on whether those inmates actually leave the U.S. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.