Federal inmates could see terms cut

Panel votes to let judges reconsider crack sentencing

December 12, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A day after the Supreme Court restored substantial power to federal judges to hand down sentences below recommended guidelines, the U.S. Sentencing Commission gave them additional authority to reduce prison terms for those already locked up for crack cocaine- related crimes.

The commission's unanimous vote yesterday was viewed by many legal experts as a belated turning point in the often fractious, two-decade-old debate over how best to deal with defendants who violate federal drug laws. The decision could reopen almost 20,000 cases, and several members of the commission - which first urged a change in the guidelines for crack-related crimes a dozen years ago - called it the most important during their tenure.

Beginning in March, almost 10 percent of federal inmates nationwide could be eligible for a reduction in their prison terms, including as many as 279 from Maryland, according to the commission's analysis. The measure does not apply to state courts and prisons where the vast majority of defendants convicted of drug crimes reside.

Sentencing Commission Chairman Ricardo H. Hinojosa, who is also a federal judge in Texas, described the change as a "modest, partial step" toward addressing inequities in federal drug sentencing. He and other members called on Congress to revisit the issue and rectify the overall disparity in sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine- related offenses in a more comprehensive way.

"It is the right thing to do. There is just no way to justify the ratio" of crack cocaine crimes being penalized much more harshly than those involving an equal amount of powder cocaine, said U.S. District Judge Ruben Castillo, a vice chair of the commission and former federal prosecutor who handled cocaine cases in Chicago.

At yesterday's meeting of the presidentially appointed commission in Washington, the Bush administration renewed its opposition to revisiting crack-involved cases. Administration officials argued yesterday that the potential release of thousands of inmates could pose a public safety risk.

The Sentencing Commission responded saying that the delay until March 3 of its decision's effective date will provide the prison system time to prepare inmates for their reintegration into communities.

Host of factors

U.S. district judges will have the ultimate authority on whether to reduce a defendant's prison term in resentencing. They must take into account a host of factors, including an individual's criminal record and potential future threat to society, according to the federal sentencing guidelines modified retroactively yesterday.

The differences in how the federal justice system punished those convicted of crack-related crimes versus powder cocaine has long been framed by critics as unjustly discriminatory and racially biased. The sentencing guidelines are based largely on the amount of drugs involved in a crime. They often treated concentrated crack cocaine as 100 times more dangerous than cocaine in the pure, powder form.

But commission members who spoke out yesterday said that drug-weight calculations made in the 1980s are unsupportable today. Tougher sentences for crack-related crimes, they argued, also unjustly target poor blacks, who are more likely to use and sell the drug. Studies show that whites are more likely to possess the costlier powder form of cocaine.

The commission made the guidelines for crack and powder cocaine more equal for all cases after Nov. 1, and yesterday's vote applied the reduced guidelines to all defendants still serving time.

Of the 19,500 prisoners who might gain from yesterday's decision, the average defendant could see more than two years shaved off his or her prison term, the commission concluded.

But about 3,800 affected inmates could leave prison within the next year if judges grant them the full benefit of the change made yesterday.

"I would hope that there would be some triaging so they would deal with those cases first," said Andrew D. Levy, a professor at the University of Maryland Law School and attorney who practices in federal court. Although judges will have more latitude now, the sentencing guidelines still recommend harsher penalties in crack-related cases.

Effort draws praise

Though they said more needs to be done to eliminate the disparity, advocacy groups for inmates' families, civil liberties organizations and sympathetic lawmakers applauded the effort.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, predicted that Congress would soon hold hearings to address remaining disparities in the guidelines for crack.

"Those who break the law deserve to be punished, but our system says that punishment must be proportionate and fair," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement last night. "The current sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is neither."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.