Crime & Courts

Dozens of federal inmates scheduled for early release in Charlotte

On Friday, up to 50 federal inmates from the Charlotte area will become free men and women under a sweeping early release program involving thousands of prisoners nationwide.

While many applaud the cuts in prison time for the mostly nonviolent drug crime offenders, opinions differ locally on whether the programs are in place to aid their successful return to private life.

Statewide, 227 inmates – the fifth-highest number in the country – are scheduled for release later this week under a July 2014 decision by the federal Sentencing Commission to retroactively cut prison times to match new sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenses. In South Carolina, 105 inmates have been approved for early release, the Justice Department said.

Nationally, 6,000 inmates are set to leave U.S. custody, the country’s largest ever one-time federal release. Eventually, half the federal prison population now serving drug sentences – some 46,000 in all – could be freed.

Once they are let go, the prisoners fall under the supervision of the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services staff for the period of supervised release included in their original sentences. Noncitizen inmates will be taken into custody by immigration officials for possible deportation, a Justice Department spokeswoman said.

U.S. Clerk of Court Frank Johns of Charlotte said up to 150 of the prisoners scheduled for release in the coming days live in the Western District of North Carolina, a 32-county area that stretches west from Charlotte through Asheville and the North Carolina mountains, and north through Statesville and Wilkesboro to the Virginia line.

An even larger number of prisoners could join them in the coming year, Johns said, as hundreds of requests for early release make their way through the courts.

More than 80 percent of the North Carolina inmates scheduled to be freed already are in halfway houses or home detention. In South Carolina, 70 percent of the prisoners are similarly situated.

In Charlotte, 32 will be released Friday from the McLeod Center, which operates the only federal halfway house in Mecklenburg County. Director Louise Ferrell said the inmates have undergone months of vocational, employment and life skills training to prepare them. They range in age from 21 to 40 and had prison sentences from nine months to more than 20 years.

Ferrell said she’s optimistic about their futures.

“All the folks are doing well. ... I feel pretty good for them,” she said. “A lot of them have really transitioned well.”

Ferrell said she expects a portion of the early releases to end up back in prison. But she says public safety is not significantly at risk. “My foremost concern is the safety of this community. I feel very good about this,” she said.

Johns, though, said local probation offices are scrambling to prepare for “the crush of people” that will come under their supervision starting this week. Some inmates, he said, are being freed without the usual months of preparatory training.

“The big question: Will there be services in place to help these people succeed?” Johns said. “Letting them out for a political agenda is really nice for the first 24 hours, but then good luck.”

The release is part of a federal effort to reduce prison populations and reform what most now believe to have been the country’s overly harsh mandatory prison sentences for even minor federal drug offenses.

A month ago, federal prisons held almost 94,000 inmates serving drug-related sentences, three times the next-highest number for a single type of offense (weapons, explosives and arson). Drug offenses account for almost half of the country’s federal prison population.

Thousands of federal inmates have already applied for early releases, prison officials said. Yet in Western North Carolina, the program in no way resembles a blanket pardon. A 2014 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that 51 percent of the district’s early release applicants had been approved. The national average was 79 percent. In the Eastern District headquartered in Raleigh, the approval rate was 87 percent.

Caregivers such as Ferrell and defense attorneys with former clients now awaiting their freedom said fears about public safety and the pressures on transitional agencies are overblown.

A public defender, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to comment, said she has five clients about to be freed. One woman jailed on methamphetamine charges received drug treatment in prison and then became a certified heavy equipment operator. Another sentenced for a crack cocaine conviction successfully trained to become a lumberjack. Both are now prepared to assume law-abiding lives, she said.

“Why don’t we wait and see before we decide we have a problem?” the public defender said. “People are making a big deal out of nothing. These are model prisoners that have done well. If anybody deserves to get out, it’s these folks.”

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

The top prisoner releases this week

1. Texas, 597

2. Florida, 310

3. Illinois, 260

4. California, 250

5. North Carolina, 227