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The positive and negative effects of Obama’s early prison release program

The second chance for these inmates is being praised by many and, on the other hand, critics are calling this move outrageous and a danger to public safety


Clarisa Lopez, right, daughter of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera is embraced by a well wisher a day after president Barack Obama commuted her father’s sentence, at a press conference at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017. Lopez Rivera, member of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional, a group dedicated to the fight for the independence of Puerto Rico during the 1970s and 80s, was convicted of seditious conspiracy and weapons-related charges.

AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

News reports from around the country indicate President Barack Obama has granted more commutations than any other president in history and more than the past twelve presidents combined. After granting clemency to 273 federal inmates recently, the total number of federal inmates granted clemency by our current president is 1,597 – all of whom were convicted of drug crimes. The second chance for these inmates is being praised by many and, on the other hand, critics are calling this move outrageous and a danger to public safety. President Obama has declared that the U.S. criminal justice system is not as smart as it should be and is not as fair as it should be regarding fair sentencing – especially when it comes to drug crimes.

Why is this unique?

First and foremost, this is the largest group of inmates released early into society in such a short period of time. The president is challenging our criminal justice system and pushing for sentencing guidelines to be made fair and consistent across the board. Interestingly, he also holds the record for the fewest clemencies in his first term as president.

President Obama will leave the White House with the very same clemency process that he took over. Not every inmate will be released immediately; some of the inmates received a reduced sentence and will have to remain in prison for a while longer. This, in the long run, may benefit the inmates to allow time to get mentally prepared for release and make arrangements for a place to stay once released.

The other unique issue we must pay close attention to is the public safety risk involved. Given the size of this inmate exodus, the U.S. Pardon Board and background investigative panel may not be able to accurately investigate each inmate to ensure he or she is the proper candidate for early release. This is a critical concern for overall public and community safety. Fingers are pointing in every direction regarding the issue of the Justice Department not being fully set up for this task and doing the best job they can regarding the screening of inmates eligible for early release.

What is the good news?

The good news is that by releasing non-violent drug offenders, the prisons are relieving some of the overcrowding and making room for violent offenders. The relief also saves the tax payers money as each inmate, if healthy, costs taxpayers anywhere from $31,286 to $60,000 per year depending on location. Other positive feedback comes out of California. In 2011, the Supreme Court of California ordered 30,000 inmates to be released due to overcrowding. Studies from The Public Policy Institute of California and Stanford University indicated violent crimes did not rise after the early release of these inmates and only 1.3 percent of those early release inmates returned to prison.

Risks of early release

The sudden release of such a large number of inmates can result in missing important information in an inmate’s criminal history. There is the possibility of past domestic violence or weapons charges being overlooked. Prior planning, sufficient public safety personnel and a game plan must be established to ensure community safety.

Leaving prison early or in a sudden rush can cause psychological effects on many inmates. The movie “Shawshank Redemption,” although just a movie, correctly depicted the stress placed on inmates released into society after long years of incarceration. Many inmates cannot handle the stress alone and need counseling and guidance via a slow release program. Several of them will need assistance with finding housing, jobs, obtaining a driver’s license and new birth certificate and social security cards. All of this must be taken into consideration.

Probation and parole and re-entry centers do not offer assistance with all these issues. Some of the inmates will require special needs for mental health issues. All of these concerns, if not taken care of, can lead to recidivism. I do not believe all these areas of concern have been addressed prior to this mass number of inmates released early.

We cannot rely on family members to be able to handle all these situations. Our government must educate and assist each inmate if this early release program is to succeed. We can only hope that no innocent bystander is harmed or, worse, killed by one of these former inmates. Who will take the blame?

What’s next?

As President-Elect Donald Trump prepares to take office we may see President Obama’s clemency initiative fade into the sunset. Trump has criticized Obama’s push to grant clemency. Trump has said, “Some of these people are bad dudes,” referring to some early release inmates already on the street. We cannot see the future, but Trump does not appear to be in favor of early release and he has mentioned an interest in private prisons.

I, for one, hope we do not look back at this mass early release and regret that it happened. I would much rather see each inmate never return to prison and live a successful life. This probably will not be the case for all of them. One thing I know for sure: If we do not work together, we as a criminal justice system will not achieve our goal of protecting the public. It is a matter of give and take for all of us.

Gary York, author of “Corruption Behind Bars” and “Inside The Inner Circle,” served in the United States Army from 1978 to 1987 and was honorably discharged at the rank of Staff Sergeant from the Military Police Corps. U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Gary York completed the 7th Army Non-Commissioned Officers Leadership Academy with a 96.6% in the Train to Train method of instruction. Gary received the Army Commendation Medal and Soldier of the Quarter Award while serving. Gary was a Military Police shift supervisor for five years.

Gary then began a career with the Department of Corrections as a correctional officer. Gary was promoted to probation officer, senior probation officer and senior prison inspector where for the next 12 years he conducted criminal, civil and administrative investigations in many state prisons. Gary was also assigned to the Inspector General Drug Interdiction Team conducting searches of staff and visitors entering the prisons for contraband during weekend prison visitation. Gary also received the Correctional Probation Officer Leadership Award for the Region V, Tampa, Florida, Correctional Probation and he won the Outstanding Merit Award for leadership in the Region V Correctional Officer awards Tampa, Florida.