The biggest prisoner release in US history, explained – Updated by Dara Lind on November 1, 2015, 2:42 p.m. ET

Between October 30th and November 2nd, the government is releasing 6,000 federal prisoners — the biggest prisoner release in United States history.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at Nov 2, 2015 1.53

This wasn’t sudden: The release has been in the works for more than a year, and was actually delayed so the federal government would have time to review individual prisoners’ cases and build up its capacity to help ex-prisoners reenter society. And ironically — even though it’s happening at a time when elected Democrats and Republicans alike are making efforts to reduce mass incarceration, especially for drug crimes — neither Congress nor the White House deserves credit.

An independent federal commission has already been working to guide judges toward shorter sentences for drug offenders. This fall’s prisoner release is a matter of fairness: the result of the commission’s decision that just because someone was sentenced to a long prison term during the peak of the tough-on-crime era, he shouldn’t automatically have to serve more time than he’d get if he were sentenced today. It’s also a reminder that people throughout the criminal justice system are taking a hard look at incarceration and trying to reduce it — and that the biggest changes aren’t necessarily the highest-profile ones, or the most politically contested.

The beginning of a process that could release more than 40,000 prisoners

The 6,000 prisoners getting released between October 30 and November 2 are all serving time for federal drug crimes.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress (as well as the Obama administration) have stressed in recent years that too many people are going to federal prison for too long for nonviolent drug offenses. Both the House and Senate have introduced bills this summer to tackle one of the causes: mandatory minimum laws that require judges to sentence drug offenders to a certain amount of time. But mandatory minimums aren’t the only factor in determining how long someone goes to prison for; the exact sentence is set by a judge, with the assistance of federal sentencing “guidelines” that recommend a sentence within a certain length (based on the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s criminal history).

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