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September 21, 2008 -- Sun-Sentinel (FL)

Prison Terms In Cocaine Cases Reduced For Some Because Of Disparities

U.S. Commission Of Judges Found Crack Penalties Were Too Harsh And Affected Minorities More Than Whites

By Vanessa Blum, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Ordinarily, Anthea Harris would have waited in the car.

But on that day in October 1993, Harris didn't feel safe in the Fort Lauderdale neighborhood where her husband pulled over near dusk to conduct a drug deal. So she went with him into the apartment and watched as he exchanged 550 rocks of crack cocaine for $5,500 in cash.

The transaction, made to undercover informants, was recorded on videotape. Four years later, on Aug. 20, 1997, a federal judge sentenced Harris to 15 years and eight months for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine.

In prison, as Harris met women serving far less time for importing larger amounts of powder cocaine, the mother of two learned a painful lesson.

"I'd have been better off if I would have went and strapped the drugs to my body and came through the airport," she said. "There's no one on earth who can explain that to me."

To civil rights activists, defense lawyers and many judges, cases like Harris' show the double standard in federal sentencing laws that treat crack 100 times more harshly than powder cocaine.

Critics say the system leads to excessive prison terms for many nonviolent, first-time criminals and results in longer sentences for blacks -- the majority of crack cocaine defendants. Now, for the first time, 19,500 prisoners nationwide have a chance to reduce their sentences under a new rule lowering tough penalties for crimes involving crack by an average of 23 months. South Florida judges have already trimmed the prison terms of more than 100 drug offenders, including Harris, released after almost 11 years.

She left the Coleman Federal Correctional Complex near Orlando on June 2, reuniting with her two daughters, now 12 and 18.

But not everyone is benefiting. What's more, critics say, the fix doesn't go far enough to correct the sentencing disparity, which dates to the federal Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.

That law imposed a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving five grams of crack and a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence for crimes involving 50 grams of the drug -- the approximate weight of a Snickers bar.

"In many states, we don't sentence child abuse that harshly or even murder," said Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Law enforcement officials fear the rule change could put violent criminals back on the streets. In August, five months after a man won such an early release, authorities in St. Johns County arrested him on charges of raping a 13-year-old girl.

Panel's Reports

The new sentencing guidelines came after the U.S. Sentencing Commission, made up of judges and criminal justice analysts from both of the main political parties, issued reports concluding penalties for crack cocaine were too harsh. It said the tough guidelines often applied to low-level offenders and mostly affected minorities.

South Florida's chief federal prosecutor testified in 2006 against the changes, contending tough penalties for crack cocaine help law enforcement fight drug- and gang-related crime. U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta said strong sentencing guidelines were useful for combating gang activity and violent crime.

The new rule does not guarantee an inmate's early release and it does not amend the strict mandatory minimums set by Congress. Career felons generally are not eligible for sentence reductions. For others, it comes down to a judge's discretion.

South Florida federal judges have denied sentence reductions at a rate greater than the national average, turning away almost half the prisoners asking for early release since the change took effect in March.

Inmates may have better odds in other parts of the country. Nationwide, judges approved 76 percent of requests from crack offenders, compared with South Florida's approval rate of 54 percent.

One local inmate to meet disappointment was Sean Johnson -- a first-time offender serving a 19-year sentence. Broward sheriff's deputies arrested Johnson on his 18th birthday after finding a crack lab in a Miramar apartment where he lived with his 17-year-old girlfriend and her child.

A jury convicted Johnson of drug trafficking and U.S. District Judge William Zloch sentenced him March 6, 1993, to 19 years and seven months.

Johnson, now 34, has lived his entire adult life in federal prison. He has a son, born months after his arrest.

With the rule change, Johnson became eligible for immediate release, and prosecutors raised no objections.

However, Zloch rejected Johnson's request without explanation in March, leaving supporters baffled. On Sept. 12, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit returned the case to Zloch for "further consideration and explanation."

"From our perspective, he would be an ideal candidate," said Kathleen Williams, chief federal public defender for South Florida. "He's a man who took a horrendous turn in his life and made it positive beyond anyone's expectations."

Johnson's aunt, Vivian Wright, of Pompano Beach, agreed. "He's done enough time for what he did."

Looking Tough

When Congress set the tough sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine, federal lawmakers considered it more addictive and more dangerous than powder. Critics insist scientific research has since discredited those theories. They contend tougher sentences for crack are discriminatory, because more than 80 percent of defendants incarcerated for selling crack are black.

The new guidelines don't eliminate the sentencing disparity because federal mandatory minimum sentences remain in place. For example, possession of 50 grams of crack still carries the same 10-year prison sentence as five kilograms of cocaine powder.

Proposals to ease penalties have stalled because lawmakers want to look tough on crime, Hernandez said. "Many politicians fear that if they reduce sentences, someday it can be use against them politically."

Harris has no time to be bitter over the 10 years and nine months she spent behind bars.

"You have to let it go," said Harris, who now lives with relatives outside Orlando. "Sitting around and being angry about what happened to me is not going to get me anywhere."

Also visit our "Crack / Powder Cocaine Resources" section.

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