Thousands of Alien Felons Are Being Released from Prison

By Dan Cadman on October 19, 2015

Thanks to a little-noticed change in federal sentencing rules that occurred in 2014, a flood of 6,000 felons is being released from U.S. penitentiaries all over the country. All were convicted of significant drug offenses, such as trafficking in heroin or cocaine; many of them were subject to mandatory minimum sentences because of the seriousness of the crimes; and many were recidivists, or engaged in other criminal conduct such as using weapons in the course of their drug crimes.

According to the Wall Street Journal, this is the first wave in a flow that may ultimately result in the release of 40,000 convicts. The Journal cites officials who say that about 33 percent of those being released under the new sentence-reducing guidelines are alien offenders.

The Marshall Project has done a profile analysis of these prisoners based on U.S. Sentencing Commission data and projects the ultimate number of releases higher (46,000), but estimates the number of aliens lower, at 25 percent. Assuming accurate figures fall somewhere within the Marshall Project and Wall Street Journal projections, this means that between 11,500 and 13,200 serious alien drug offenders will soon be out of lockdown.

Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) (the last of whom is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee) have written a letter to the attorney general (AG) and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) secretary asking pointed questions about the alien prisoners, including what steps are being taken to ensure their speedy deportation and whether they will be detained pending removal. There is plenty of reason to suspect that this administration, which has of its own volition released tens of thousands of alien criminals from immigration detention centers (see here and here) for reasons having nothing to do with sentencing "reform", will not take seriously its obligation to protect public safety with this group either.

One wonders how things got to this state. After all, the Sentencing Commission establishes its guidelines based on statutes passed by Congress. Why didn't someone consider the likelihood that thousands of alien prisoners in federal prisons would be affected, and ensure that the statutory sentencing amendments of 2014 wove a web tight enough to virtually guarantee that the only possible outcomes for those released would be deportation or return to their cells? That this didn't happen implies a certain, shall we charitably say, lack of foresight.

Perhaps our Congress could be forgiven this myopic lapse — after all, to err is human — but to repeat the same mistake suggests a descent into mulish stupidity. Yet even as senators write letters of concern to the AG and DHS secretary, the Judiciary Committee is poised to take up a bill, S.2123, the "Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015", sponsored by Chairman Grassley, that goes down the same path. What is more, the bill is retroactive in effect. And, once again, there is nothing in the bill to ensure that released alien prisoners will be detained during the entire pendency of deportation proceedings. In fact, it is entirely possible that in some instances alien prisoners whose actual time served is substantially lessened by the provisions of S.2123 may find themselves in a position to go before the immigration court and ask for relief from removal because they will no longer face statutory debarment under various provisions of the immigration laws, as would have happened had they been obliged to serve the original sentence.

It's beyond the parameters of this blog to do a section-by-section analysis, but there are a number of provisions in the bill that will without any doubt have a significant impact on shortening the sentences of aliens serving time in the federal correctional system, to the detriment of public safety and border security.

For instance, Section 101 proposes to reduce the mandatory minimum sentences that must be imposed on repeat offenders convicted for trafficking, manufacturing, or distributing substantial amounts of narcotics, and even for trafficking illegal drugs into the United States from abroad. Similarly, there is language in Section 103 that establishes exceptions to sentencing guidelines for defendants "whose role was limited to transporting drugs or money at the direction or others". That describes virtually every illegal alien "mule" who hikes across our border with bundles of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, or methamphetamine strapped to his back. One can think of few ways to better undermine our already uncertain border security on the frontier with Mexico — which is fraught with cartel-related drug violence — than to mitigate the penalties for such cross-border criminal activities.

Courts will also be required to seal juvenile offenders' records, including those who have trafficked in drugs (provided there was no use of a firearm), thus putting those records outside the reach of immigration officers where aliens are concerned, even though the bill permits armed forces recruiters access to the information. The bill also requires the AG to seek expungement of juveniles' records who commit offenses prior to their 15th birthday once those offenders reach their 18th birthday. On a real, practical level these two provisos guarantee that immigration officers will not be able to obtain certified records of conviction — which is exactly the evidence they need to present in deportation proceedings to obtain removal orders against 16- and 17-year old members of MS-13 and other gangs.

Incredibly, this bill actually shortens the sentence for "stacked" gun offenses (offenses in which the individual is also charged with illegally possessing or using a firearm to effect the crime, often drug trafficking), from 25 down to 15 years. Consider: At a time when debate rages in the country about whether law-abiding gun owners should face more onerous registration and permitting laws, criminals who have been convicted of using guns in their unlawful activities will receive reduced sentences. Thus, under this bill, an illegal alien who traffics narcotics across the international border, and carries a firearm to do it, will benefit from the reduction in sentences.

One would think that with so much at stake such a bill would be given careful consideration and cautious, thorough review. Apparently that's not the case with this bill. There are some indications that it is being given the same kind of helter-skelter rush to pass that the disastrous Trans-Pacific trade and Iran sanctions bills received.

Meanwhile, word has it that Democrats intend to filibuster the anti-sanctuary bill introduced by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), which, in stark contrast to this bill, would do much to restore public confidence in our criminal justice systems, particularly where alien criminals are concerned. The Republican-led Senate seems content to accept that course of action, knowing it will dead-end the bill, even as they press forward with dubious sentencing reforms.

This disparity in treatment of the two bills is shocking, and I am at a loss to understand the reason for it.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this posting mistakenly reported that alien prisoners would benefit from the provisions in S.2123 relating to prerelease rehabilitation programs. In fact, the bill provides that aliens who may be deportable as the result of their conviction and incarceration are ineligible for such programs.