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U.S. Attorney Discusses Impact of Early Inmate Release in W.Va.

Prison Bars

In the U.S., for every 100,000 people, 710 will be incarcerated – that’s more than twice the rate of incarceration in any other developed country. And certain demographics fare significantly worse than others.

But social disparities aside, it’s prison overcrowding that is motivating changes in the justice system. Thousands of federal inmates across the country are seeing reduced sentences in light of new guidelines for non-violent drug offenders. U.S. Attorney William J. Ihlenfeld spoke about the implications and challenges here in West Virginia.

In an effort to address overcrowding in prisons across the nation, a year ago the United States Sentencing Commission decided to modify sentencing for federal drug crimes… a little. What it amounts to nationally is that, on average, non-violent drug offenders serve eight and a half years, instead of ten and a half. U.S. District Attorney William Ihlenfeld explained that last year, after receiving 80,000 comments on the matter, the independent agency within the U.S. judicial branch unanimously decided to adjust sentencing.

“Congress had the opportunity to vote to reject it,” Ihlenfeld said. “Congress elected not to take any vote which meant that the recommendation of the sentencing commission went into effect.”

59 inmates were released in West Virginia according to the Associated Press. 44 of those inmates were released in northern West Virginia, Ihlenfeld reports, after careful case-by-case evaluations. 25 percent of those 44 inmates were already transitioning out of prisons and were either under house arrest or in a halfway house.

Nationally, a quarter of all requests were denied, but 6,000 inmates were ultimately released this month around the country. Ihlenfeld says in light of the number of released prisoners every year (which is more than 70-thousand people), he doesn’t consider 6,000 an overwhelming number. At all. He says these offenders are released in the same manner as all others, which often includes lengthy probation periods. Ihlenfeld points out that with all prisoners, the most important aspect of release is what’s referred to as “re-entry.”

“If they don’t get a job and land on their feet within the first six weeks I think that the numbers are pretty bad about going back to a life of crime to support themselves. So right when they get out is the most critical time, and we’re working really hard to identify employers who will hire these individuals.”

According to the Pew Center on the States, one in three prisoners falls back into crime after release in West Virginia. And that’s supposed to be an impressive number.  West Virginia’s “recidivism rate” as it’s called, is the 4th lowest in the country. Ihlenfeld said efforts to convince employers to hire felons haven’t been in vain.

“I wouldn’t say we’re having a lot of success. We’re having some success. We have identified businesses that are very much open to that. And there’s benefits to the businesses as well.”

Ihlenfeld said business owners report that many people on supervised release are more reliable, clean, and sober because they are following a set of rules that are being overseen continuously by probation officers.

“A lot of people want to work and support their families. They just need an opportunity.”

A re-entry program exists within the U.S. District Attorney’s office for any business owners who are willing to be involved. Ihlenfeld says there’s also a little-known federal bonding program:

“So if you’re hiring someone and you’re concerned that there might be an issue of theft, there’s a federal bonding program that costs a business nothing and you can become bonded and be protected from any kind of a loss that might occur.”

Ihlenfeld said his office will continue to process requests from inmates for adjusted sentences. Implementation of the new guidelines for non-violent drug offenders was delayed by a year to give offices like his time to process requests. He said he anticipates more requests will continue to be filed for some time.