Word that thousands of federal inmates nationwide soon may qualify for shorter sentences in their crack cocaine cases came as good news for Lucretia Hill of Kansas City.
Hill's 24-year-old son, George Hill, is serving six years and three months at a federal penitentiary in Indiana for distributing crack. Because of a recent change in the federal guidelines under which he was sentenced, George Hill soon could shed up to 15 months from his term.
"I've been praying, and God has answered my prayer," Lucretia Hill said. "This is a godsend. It came at the right time."
Federal courts in western Missouri are preparing to deal with hundreds of similar requests.
The influx of motions stems from decisions last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce the prison term disparities between crack and powder cocaine dating to 1986.
So far, the federal court in Kansas City has received about 40 requests from inmates seeking shorter sentences. As many as 300 inmates sentenced in western Missouri could be eligible, court officials said.
Nationwide, the commission identified almost 20,000 inmates who could seek shorter prison terms.
Crack generally is considered more addictive than powder cocaine because it is smoked, gets into the bloodstream faster than snorted cocaine and produces a more intense high. More than 20 years ago, that difference led to longer sentences for crack cocaine.
Because four of every five crack defendants are black and most defendants in powdered cocaine cases are white, judges complained that the disparity eroded public confidence in the courts.
Federal law still requires distribution of 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger five- and 10-year mandatory minimum sentences. In 2000, the average prison sentence for trafficking powdered cocaine was 74 months. The average for crack was 117 months.
Late last month, Chief U.S. District Judge Fernando Gaitan issued an order establishing the sentence-reduction procedure for western Missouri.
Requests will be funneled to U.S. District Judge Ortrie Smith, who will make the final decisions after receiving input from a public defender, two prosecutors and several U.S. probation officers.
Lists of inmates who are eligible to apply have been drafted by public defenders, prosecutors, probation officers, the federal courts and the Sentencing Commission. The federal Bureau of Prisons also has posted notices informing inmates of the possibility of shorter sentences, Smith said.
"We don't want to miss anyone," Smith said.
Those who qualify would receive a reduction of no more than two years from their sentence. The commission estimated last year that about 3,800 inmates nationwide could be released within a year after the decision takes effect March 3. In western Missouri, about 60 inmates could be released in the first few years.
The sentence reductions are not automatic. A variety of factors, including public safety considerations, will play a role in whether an inmate qualifies, said Kevin Lyon, the chief probation officer in Kansas.
Lyon said his office will notify Smith of any public safety questions that arose either at the offender's initial arrest or since incarceration.
Gregg Coonrod, an assistant U.S. attorney who is handling claims for the government, said his office also would watch for inmates who could present a problem on their release.
"We'll argue over the ones who are worth arguing over," Coonrod said.
Though participants say the local effort has been marked by cooperation, the project has been controversial in Washington.
Attorney General Michael Mukasey has warned about the prospect of releasing 1,600 possibly violent criminals into ill-prepared communities in the program's first year. He asked the Congress to block or alter the Sentencing Commission's decision, though he said he would support reducing prison time for first-time, nonviolent offenders.
Senate Democrats rejected Mukasey's request last week.
Locally, Smith said that he might order some inmates released in the initial years to serve a few months in a federal halfway house so they can work on their job prospects and develop transition plans while under close supervision.
"The last thing we want to do is set them up to fail," Smith said.
Assistant public defender Laine Cardarella, who will represent most of the inmates making claims in western Missouri, said she hoped the process will run smoothly and clients such as George Hill receive sentences that more fairly fit their crimes.
"We certainly think the new guidelines ranges are a better reflection of appropriate punishment for these offenses," Cardarella said. "We are anxious to help as many people as we can to be reunited with their families sooner."
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