The U.S. Justice Department's announcement last week that it would seek clemency applications from thousands of federal prisoners was a major departure for an administration that has made minimal use of its powers to grant inmates early release.
But the potential freeing of thousands of inmates is not completely unknown for the federal justice system — and advocates for shorter sentences say experience shows prisoners can be released without harming the public.
Previous changes to sentencing rules have led to early release for tens of thousands of inmates serving time for crack convictions. In 2011 the U.S. Sentencing Commission looked at what effect the changes had on ex-convicts' likelihood of re-offending.
The study compared the recidivism rates of two groups of inmates. The first included crack offenders who had their sentences cut after a 2007 change to the rules. The second consisted of inmates in similar cases who had served their entire original sentence.
"The overall recidivism rates for the two groups are similar," the report's authors concluded.
The study found that among the group released early, 30 percent had re-offended within two years of getting out of prison. In the group that served full sentences, the rate was about 32 percent. The study found the difference not statistically significant.
For advocates of early release, like James Wyda, the federal public defender in Maryland, the finding is important because it appears to show prisoners can be released early without posing a greater threat to the public.
"We've granted so much sentencing relief and no one notices — not a story," he said.
That opens the door to the possibility of cutting sentences further, Wyda added. "How far could you take these sentences down and still meet the purposes of punishment?" he asked.
The latest plan is not without opponents.
Some Republican lawmakers objected to the president using his clemency power to reduce the prison stays of drug inmates. Federal prosecutors also raised concerns about aspects of the administration's approach.
The clemency plan is also a reminder of the patchwork approach the government has taken to reducing sentences for federal drug crimes in recent years, as fears over the dangers of drugs — especially crack —abated and concerns rose about the costs of incarceration.
Through the sentencing commission, appeals court rulings, and decisions made by individual judges, the judicial branch has had its say. The legislative branch weighed in when Congress changed the law to reduce the disparity between crack and cocaine sentences.
Finally, with last week's clemency plan and other guidance from U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. to his prosecutors, the executive branch is also getting in on the act.