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Crack Offenders Set for Release Mostly Nonviolent, Study Says

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

Most of the more than 1,500 crack cocaine offenders who are immediately eligible to petition courts to be released from federal prisons under new guidelines issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission are small-time dealers or addicts who are not career criminals and whose charges did not involve violence or firearms, according to a new analysis by the commission staff.

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About 6 percent of the inmates were supervisors or leaders of drug rings, and about 5 percent were convicted of obstructing justice, generally by trying to get rid of their drugs as they were being arrested or contacting witnesses or co-defendants before trial, according to the analysis being circulated on Capitol Hill by the commission to counter Bush administration assertions that the guidelines would prompt the release of thousands of dangerous criminals.

About one-quarter of these inmates were given enhanced sentences because of weapons charges, though the charge can apply to defendants who were actually not carrying a gun or a knife but were with someone who was armed.

About 18 percent of the offenders' sentences were reduced because they were arrested and charged for the first time, were forced into a drug ring by someone such as a boyfriend, were unwittingly caught up in a drug operation during a police raid, or for some other reason.

The largest group -- 41 percent -- consists of small-time crack offenders who do not fall under any of the criteria that would cause authorities to increase their sentences or have them reduced.

"What portion of these are violent and what portion of those are girlfriends just caught up . . . with their boyfriends and they're serving for decades, more than bank robbers and murderers?" said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), who has been critical of the administration's attempts to overturn the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision to reduce federal prison sentences for crack offenders and make that policy retroactive to cover current prisoners.

The figures are at odds with the characterization of the inmates by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who would like Congress to pass legislation voiding the U.S. Sentencing Commission policy before it takes effect March 3.

"Many of these offenders are among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system, and their early release . . . at a time when violent crime had increased in some communities will produce tragic but predictable results," Mukasey said at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing.

The staff analysis indicated that about 6 percent of the inmates' sentences were increased because they were supervisors or leaders of a drug crew of four or more, 6 percent of prisoners' sentences were enhanced for arms specifications, and 1 percent were considered career criminals. The findings were consistent with a U.S. Sentencing Commission report to Congress in May that showed that 90 percent of federal crack cases did not involve violence. Only 5 percent involved a threat, and even fewer involved injury or death.

Crack offenders serve prison terms that are up to eight times as long as those of powder cocaine offenders because of a sentencing disparity mandated by Congress under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The law created a 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine offenses, meaning that five grams of crack -- about the size of two sugar cubes -- drew the same mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder.

Many activists, federal public defenders, probation officers and federal judges have said the disparity is racially discriminatory. The overwhelming majority of crack cocaine offenders are black, while most powder cocaine offenders are white or Latino.

Under pressure, the commission moderately reduced the guidelines for future crack offenders in March. The guidelines went into effect in November after Congress declined to intervene. The next month, the commission decided to make the guidelines retroactive so that current inmates could petition to reduce their sentences.


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