When a federal judicial panel voted this year to reduce the sentences of thousands of inmates serving time for federal drug crimes, the move won praise from the Justice Department and advocates for prisoners.

But now, with the Nov. 1 deadline for Congress to stop the change looming with no sign of action, the hard work of figuring out which prisoners are eligible is getting underway.


Much of the job will fall on probation officers, judges and public defenders — federal employees of the judiciary — taxing the resources of agencies left reeling by last year's sequester and still dealing with tight budgets.

"This process is more work for us," said James Wyda, the head of Maryland's federal public defenders office. "But our people get how important it is."


The U.S. Sentencing Commission, the body that sets guidelines for judges, has agreed to several compromises to give the system time to prepare. Even though the first inmates won't be released for a year, officials in Maryland are starting to get ready now.

"We really want to balance the fairness of affording the retroactive release to offenders ... but also the need for adequate planning and transition time," said Catherine C. Blake, chief judge of Maryland's U.S. District Court.

The change to the sentencing guidelines is part of a broader strategy to soften federal drug sentences, a move long sought by activists and championed more recently by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

In Maryland, where federal prosecutors have fought drug-dealing aggressively, hundreds of inmates are expected to see time shaved off their sentences. Some have filed petitions on their own, only to be told they need to wait until the new rules go into effect.

U.S. Attorney for Maryland Rod J. Rosenstein said his office recently received a list of 367 offenders that the sentencing commission believes are eligible for early release. Nationwide, about 46,000 prisoners serving time for drug offenses could see their terms cut by an average of more than two years.

The agencies involved went through a similar process after the sentencing commission agreed in 2007 to make reductions to crack cocaine sentences retroactive. Officials say they plan to follow a similar approach this time.

"It is going to be a cooperative process," said Blake, who will sit on a committee being formed to manage the job in Maryland. "We really want to balance the fairness of affording the retroactive release to offenders ... but also the need for adequate planning and transition time."

The first steps will be for federal prosecutors and public defenders to figure out who is eligible for release, and to prioritize cases in which a shortened sentence would allow an inmate to get out by November 2015.

Rosenstein said he has assigned an assistant U.S. attorney to represent the prosecutors and plans to contract a paralegal to help out. The aim will be to make sure no one deserving of release gets overlooked and that no one who should stay in prison gets out, he said.

"That requires us to investigate appropriately every individual case," Rosenstein said. In older cases, that will mean digging into mountains of paper files.

The lawyers will then file petitions in court — and more inmates are expected to file their own motions. Federal judges will make the final decision about the new sentences.

Under the sentencing commission plan, no inmate who is having his or her sentence reduced can be released before Nov. 1, 2015.


Blake said inmates can use the next year to start preparations for release in the prison system. Federal probation officers are to begin putting together plans to supervise them.

Karen Sellinger, deputy chief of the federal probation office in Maryland, said she expects her staff to gain about 140 new ex-convicts to help re-enter into society.

One reason for reducing sentences is to save on the cost of incarceration. But the move will shift those costs from the Bureau of Prisons, part of the Justice Department, to probation offices, which are part of the federal judiciary.

Sellinger said her team has mostly recovered from the effects of the sequester, the automatic spending cuts triggered last year after Congress failed to reach a broader budget deal. She is planning to hire additional staff to handle the workload.

"Funding this year is generally better for probation offices nationally, so we're in a better position to hire staff and prepare," Sellinger said. "But that's a lot of people coming out."

The newly released inmates will not simply be cut loose. Sellinger said her team will conduct a detailed assessment of all the prisoners to determine the risk they pose of committing another crime and the support they will need to get into work and housing.

"We try to spend more time on the people who pose the highest risk," Sellinger said.

After the inmates are out, they will be supervised by probation officers and can be sent back to prison if they violate the terms of their release.

Despite the prospect of extra work, Wyda said his team is excited about the chance to secure the early release of so many inmates he believes were locked up for unfairly long terms.

"Everyone should work just as hard correcting unjust sentences as they did imposing the original excessive ones," Wyda said.


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