Amid fears of recidivism, massive U.S. prisoner release underway

NEW YORK -- The largest ever mass-release of federal prisoners in this country began Friday.

A wave of about 6,000 non-violent drug offenders are gaining their freedom.

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It's a program supported by Democrats and Republicans to ease overcrowding in prisons.

"This is about as far as I can go," said Michael Higgins when he was wearing an ankle bracelet because he was on house arrest.

After being in a halfway house and under home arrest for five months, 50-year-old Higgins became a free man today. The former public school teacher served 10 years in federal prison for dealing meth and ecstasy.

"I was released two years early, and I am so grateful for that," Higgins said.

He's one of some 6,000 federal inmates to be granted early release under a U.S. Sentencing Commission program.

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After being in a halfway house and under home arrest for five months, 50-year-old Michael Higgins became a free man today. The former public school teacher served 10 years in federal prison for dealing meth and ecstasy. CBSNews.com

In 2014, the commission voted to cut jail time for some non-violent drug offenders. The average 10-and-a-half-year prison sentence is being reduced by two years.

This program is part of a bipartisan effort to reduce the federal prison population which has grown to more than 200,000 inmates.

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Also being addressed: evening out sentences for those caught with crack as opposed to powder cocaine and loosening so-called mandatory minimum sentences.

Critics say both practices have led to high incarceration rates and unfairly targeted blacks and the poor.

Kevin Ring who represents Families Against Mandatory Minimums said, "Congress has decided -- over the last 30 years -- to spend billions of dollars locking up non-violent, low-level offenders. So we have shifted our resources to locking up drug dealers and offenders who can be treated in other ways and with shorter sentences."

But some sheriff's and police chiefs disagree -- arguing that the mass release comes without a proper safety net for the former inmates.

"This is all going to be dropped into the laps of the American police," said New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton. "We are letting them out of jail, but treatment is not there. Job training is not there. Housing, for many of them, is not there."

Asked if he believed his concerns have been heard at the Federal level, Bratton answered, "No."

The sentence reductions are not automatic. Federal judges are required to carefully consider whether there is a threat to public safety. So far judges have denied about 26 percent of the total petitions they have received.