Thousands of federal prisoners set to be released early thanks to a change in drug rules will most likely be quickly deported to their home countries next year.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, a group that controls advisory sentencing guidelines for federal judges, voted last week to shave an average of two years off the sentences of up to 46,000 inmates jailed for drug crimes. The first ones will be released on Nov. 1, 2015.
The group has begun to reverse older policies that sent people away for decades for nonviolent drug crimes, part of a larger criminal justice reform push that has attracted bipartisan support. In 2007, the group lightened sentences for crack offenders. Inmates will have to apply for the sentence reductions with the help of public defenders, and federal judges will have a year to decide who qualifies for early release.
But many of the people who will benefit from the change in policy will likely be deported as soon as they qualify for the sentence reduction. A quarter of all the qualifying inmates are not U.S. citizens, according to the group’s analysis, complicating the picture many have of drug offenders as gang-affiliated young men in run-down, poor urban neighborhoods. Many of the offenders, in fact, were caught with drugs in their vehicles as they tried to cross the border and were prosecuted in Texas. The Lone Star state has nearly 21 percent of all the prisoners who will benefit from the early release. Of those 10,296 prisoners in Texas, up to a third will be deported once released.
The hefty noncitizen portion of offenders could cut the state a break, since the criminal justice system does not have enough probation officers and halfway homes to handle the influx that’s expected when the first releases begin in November 2015.
“There wouldn’t have been enough facilities to absorb the number of people who would be released,” said Maureen Franco, public defender in the Western District of Texas, which covers much of the state's border with Mexico.
Giving the judges a year to consider the early release petitions will also allow Immigration and Customs Enforcement time to make sure it has enough beds for the prisoners while they await their deportation.
Franco said her immigrant clients are just as eager for early release as those who are citizens, despite the deportation that awaits them. She’s already heard from some of them who are emailing her and asking when they can get out.
This might be in part because immigrants living illegally in the U.S. are not eligible for many programs in federal prison — they also can’t live in lower-security facilities. “It’s a much harsher sentence,” said Marjorie Meyers, federal public defender in the Southern District of Texas.
Ricardo Hinojosa, a vice chair of the Sentencing Commission and a federal judge in Laredo, brought up concerns before the group’s vote that the offenders who are sent back to Mexico will not be rigorously supervised by that country’s probation system. “Many of them will be tempted to come back, and maybe quicker, because of the fact that many of them have families on this side of the border,” Hinojosa said.
Those who are caught trying to come back over the border face up to 10 years in federal prison. They might fear the violence in Mexico, particularly if they were involved in drugs, more than detention in America, where at least they are safe.
Prisoners who had legal immigration status but were not citizens can try to fight their deportation, but it’s a long shot. “It’s very hard to fight,” Meyers said.