The release is part of an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and give relief to minor drug offenders who were slapped with harsh sentences over the past 30 years.
Most of the prisoners freed by the department's Bureau of Prisons between October 30 and November 2 will go to halfway houses and home confinement before being put on supervised release, the Washington Post reports.
The release was facilitated by the US Sentencing Commission – an independent agency that sets sentencing policies for federal crimes – which reduced the potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and then applied the change retroactively, the newspaper reports.
The commission estimates that its change in sentencing guidelines eventually could result in the release of 46,000 of the nation's approximately 100,000 drug offenders in federal prison qualifying for early release.
Along with the commission's action, Justice Department prosecutors decided not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders not connected to gangs or major drug organizations with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences, the Post reports.
Although some of the inmates who will be released have served decades, on average they will have served 8.5 years, according to a Justice Department official who spoke with the Post.
Each inmate must petition a judge, who decides whether to grant the sentencing reduction. Judges nationwide are granting about 70 sentence reductions per week, Justice officials said, but some inmates have been denied a reduction.
About one third of the prisoners being released are foreign nationals and will be deported shortly after they are free, justice officials have said.
The United States still leads the world in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation's prisons or jails – a 500% increase over the past thirty years, according to the Sentencing Project.