The US Department of Justice is getting ready to release 6,000 federal prisoners as part of an unprecedented effort to shorten the sentences of America’s drug offenders.
But one key group of drug offenders won’t be eligible to be released: people convicted under the US government’s “three strikes law” that gives mandatory life sentences to certain people with two prior convictions.
The released prisoners won’t include, for example, Timothy Tyler, a nonviolent offender we previously profiled who received life in prison more than 20 years ago.
That’s because the release of the 6,000 prisoners was triggered by the US Sentencing Commission. In 2014, the agency reduced penalties for drug crimes and found its decision could be applied retroactively. The 6,000 inmates are just being released now so the US Bureau of Prisons could have time to prepare for their re-entry, according to The New York Times.
Though the commission has the power to change sentencing guidelines for drug crimes, it does not have authority over the “three strikes” law and therefore can’t affect the release of prisoners convicted under it. Only Congress can undo that law, and even then the changes probably wouldn’t apply retroactively.
People sentenced under that law have very limited options. Federal prisoners don’t qualify for parole anymore (except those who were grandfathered in).
The only option for inmates like Tyler is to ask the president of the United States himself for a commutation — a time- and labour-intensive process with long odds.
In Tyler’s case, he received life in prison because prosecutors elected to tell the sentencing judge that he’d received two other sentences for drug offenses. Though Tyler got probation both previous times, the federal “three strikes” law forced the judge to give him a life prison sentence for his third conviction.
If prosecutors hadn’t elected to tell the judge about his previous convictions, Tyler would be out of prison by now. Now, he will likely die there, unless President Barack Obama commutes his sentence.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Mary Price, general counsel of the group Families Against Mandatory Minimum Sentences, told Business Insider. “It is just ridiculously complicated and unjust.”
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