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March 26, 2008 - Capital Times (WI)

New Guidelines Reduce Crack Dealer's Sentence

By Kevin Murphy

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

District Judge Barbara Crabb took nearly eight years off a prison sentence Tuesday for a Madison man convicted of crack cocaine delivery, using new guidelines that lower penalties for crack cocaine toward those imposed on powder cocaine offenders.

District Judge John Shabaz had sentenced Dennis Dickinson, 35, to 17 years in prison in June 2006 for intent to distribute more than five grams of crack cocaine, possession of handgun and obstruction of justice.

Last fall, the Federal Sentencing Commission lowered the penalties in response to criticisms that crack cocaine defendants, who were predominately African American males, were treated harsher than powder cocaine defendants, who were more frequently white males.

Crabb also sentenced Dickinson in the middle of the new guideline (97-121 months) after Shabaz gave Dickinson a sentence at the top of the old range (168-210 months).

Dickinson is also scheduled to be sentenced today in Dane County Circuit Court on heroin possession and reckless injury charges.

Dickinson's sentence reduction to nine years and seven months may not present the best example of how the lesser crack penalties are playing out in federal court because his cooperation with authorities also earned him a time served reduction.

Depending on the source, there may be 120 to more than 200 crack defendants eligible for re-sentencing in federal court for the Western District of Wisconsin as the Sentencing Commission made the new lower guidelines retroactive.

Defense attorney Chris Van Wagner said lowering the crack penalties addressed more of a cultural than racial situation. Crack cocaine sales increased in inner city neighborhoods during the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating addicts and providing a lot of income for street gangs before the white middle class became aware of it.

Madison has seen its share of crack cases as the federal Weed and Seed Program focused law enforcement resources on street dealers in Madison's poorer neighborhoods, said Van Wagner who was a federal prosecutor here.

Investigators brought their suspects to federal prosecutors knowing the penalties would be more harsh, even "draconian," said Van Wagner. "In the 90s, there was an emphasis on crack prosecutions of street gangs as Madison appeared to be a destination for crack brought in by Chicago gang members to the Madison projects."

Law enforcement made cases on "small time" crack dealers. Those possessing five to 10 grams could be sentenced to five to 10 years in prison, Van Wagner said.

In the last five years, the U.S. Attorney's office refocused its efforts on kingpins rather than street dealers, "which makes a great deal of sense," said Van Wagner.

Under the old guidelines, a person possessing one gram of crack cocaine would receive a sentence equal to a defendant possessing 100 grams of powder cocaine.

In dollars and sense, it didn't add to Van Wagner and other defense attorneys.

"When $5,000 worth of crack would net double or triple the sentence in federal court for $5,000 worth of power cocaine, something had to change," he said.

The federal court here is handling a number of cases where the parties stipulate to the new guideline punishment or file motions and brief their case like Dickinson did, said Federal Magistrate Theresa Owen.

Defendants closest to a release date from prison are being given priority in being considered for re-sentencing, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim O'Shea.

Attorneys in the federal defender office and prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's office were not available for immediate comment Tuesday.

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