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March 5, 2008 - Washington Post (DC)

Government Starts Cutting Sentences Of Crack Inmates

Bureau of Prisons Processes 400 Orders

By Darryl Fears, Washington Post Staff Writer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

The federal government said yesterday that it has received hundreds of court orders reducing the prison sentences of crack cocaine offenders in the two days since new sentencing guidelines took effect.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons could not say how many prisoners have already been released under the U.S. Sentencing Commission's new guidelines, but the bureau has processed about 400 orders modifying prison terms nationwide.

Some activists say the guidelines bring a much-delayed sense of equity, but the Bush administration asserts that they will result in the release of violent criminals.

More than 3,000 crack offenders are eligible for release within the year, according to an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The commission modified a 100 to 1 ratio disparity between sentences meted for crack and powder cocaine possession, saying that it was unfair because the drugs are virtually the same.

The Bush administration opposed the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision to make the new guidelines retroactive for inmates currently serving sentences for crack cocaine crimes. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said that crack offenders would clog the courts with petitions requesting a release, and that "violent criminals" would eventually be returned to the streets.

Mukasey and other Justice Department officials asked Congress to block the commission's decision in several meetings of the House and Senate judiciary panels, but lawmakers declined to act.

As early as January, inmates started filing motions for sentence modifications. Judges reviewed the motions and notified federal prosecutors and public defenders that their petitions were being considered.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, which has the largest number of crack cocaine convictions and nearly 2,000 inmates who are eligible for release within the next year, one federal public defender, Michael Nachmanoff, said he submitted petitions for the release of 16 clients, one of whom was freed as of yesterday.

A D.C.-based activist group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, issued the names of four people who were released in Florida and California, including Natasha J. Marshall, 48, who walked out of Victorville Federal Correctional Complex on Monday.

"It was a beautiful day," Marshall said. A friend, Kathy Harden, picked her up outside the prison gate near San Bernardino, Calif., and Marshall, who served nearly 11 years of a 15-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, said she was overjoyed because "I could hug my friend, and she didn't have to go one way, and I didn't have to go another. I could go with her."

The Sentencing Commission joined federal judges, public defenders, probation officers and activists in condemning the sentencing disparity because of cases such as Marshall's. She was arrested with her husband, Archie, a drug dealer, in August 1996 and convicted, she said, even though she never touched the drugs or counted the money he earned from dealing it.

"We had been married a long time before he got involved," she said. Marshall was unaware of the sentencing disparity or that a sentence for possessing or distributing crack can be increased if a gun is present at the time of arrest, no matter who it belongs to.

"I had never been in trouble before," Marshall said. "I just couldn't understand why they wouldn't ask, 'Why would someone wait until they were 36 years old to get in trouble?' "

In congressional testimony and in speeches, Mukasey said not every offender eligible for release is like Marshall. Eighty percent have prior criminal records and are likely to commit another crime.

But a Sentencing Commission analysis said most of the convicts eligible for immediate release were small-time offenders who are nonviolent. A 2005 analysis found that nearly 90 percent of crack offenses were nonviolent, about the same as powder cocaine offenses.

Vernon Watts is the kind of major drug dealer that Mukasey is concerned about. He received a 22-year sentence for possessing 559 grams of crack cocaine and served 16 years before he was freed Feb. 12 because of the sentencing reduction.

Watts, who took computer programming classes and drug rehabilitation classes even though "I've never used drugs in my life," said he will have to earn Mukasey's trust.

Although he felt his sentence did not seem to fit his offense, he said, "it was what it was. We were out there doing wrong. When you're destroying people and communities, I'm not going to say I was done wrong. I accept my responsibility."

Meanwhile, the Vienna-based International Narcotics Control Board called today for more "proportionality" in the way some governments prosecute drug offenders. The 2007 annual report of the INCB, an independent body under the auspices of the United Nations that monitors compliance with international treaties, cited lengthy mandatory sentences in the United States for personal drug possession and use, and it noted that other countries draw sharper lines between such use and drug trafficking and sales.

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