Federal judges have issued orders to release 140 prisoners in Minnesota as part of a national program to reduce the long sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who have filled federal prisons to overflowing.

Fifty federal prisoners will be released in the state on Oct. 30 and another 25 will be released in November, said Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim.

“I think it reflects a change of thinking for many of us in the criminal justice system that the sentences imposed on nonviolent drug offenders has been too lengthy,” Tunheim said Wednesday.

About 6,000 prisoners will be released nationally, beginning at the end of the month. Of that number, about a third are undocumented immigrants and are expected to be deported.

The people being released have been serving sentences for drug crimes, not for violent offenses, said Kate Menendez, chief of training for the local Federal Public Defender’s office.

“Federal supervised release is generally quite strict with requirements that clients report regularly to their probation office and submit to random and sometimes frequent drug testing,” she said.

The release has been planned for a year, spurred by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and most of those getting out have already served substantial sentences.

Putting it in context, the Justice Department says federal prisons release between 45,000 and 50,000 inmates every year as their sentences expire.

The average sentence of prisoners affected by the new federal program is 10½ years and the reduction will bring the average time served to 8 ½ years, the Justice Department said.

According to federal figures, 150 motions have been filed seeking sentence reductions in Minnesota by the Federal Public Defender’s office, and 243 motions have been filed “pro se” by prisoners themselves, without an attorney. Sixty-seven motions for release have been denied by federal judges locally.

“Considering the fact that the United States has a greater percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other country in the word, releasing in essence these low-level drug offenders is a very good thing,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.

Law enforcement worries

However, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek said that he and other law enforcement officials worry that some of those being released for nonviolent drug offenses have criminal histories that include violent crimes and that they may have a propensity to reoffend.

“This is a unilateral move by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and Department of Justice,” Stanek said. “It is not to say some [who are released] are not deserving. Overcrowding should not be the issue at hand. It should be about the safety of our citizens.”

Asked about the concerns for public safety, Tunheim said, “They will all have probation officers who are intensively supervising them and they will hopefully make a smooth transition to private life.”

The Obama administration has been outspoken in recent years about the overcrowded conditions in federal prisons and the need to reduce the lengthening sentences of nonviolent drug offenders, many of them minorities. Despite the gridlock in Congress, many Republicans have endorsed proposals to cut sentences, citing the overcrowding and public costs.

“I think the penalties that were imposed … were harsh and were based on a system that was clearly shown not to be fair, compared to sentences for other federal crimes,” said Katherian Roe, chief federal public defender for Minnesota. “This is an effort to try and compensate for that. These folks served more time than necessary to punish them for their offense.”

The Sentencing Commission enacted the guidelines on Nov. 1, 2014, but it set a one-year delay before anyone could be released. That gave prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and judges an opportunity to review cases, decide who was eligible and calculate the reduced sentences, Menendez said.

Many of those who face imminent release have already been moved to halfway houses or put on electronic home detention, so as to help them begin to reintegrate into the community, connect with their families and look for jobs, Menendez said.


Twitter: @randyfurst