Government Starts Cutting Sentences Of Crack Inmates

Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said crack offenders would clog the courts with petitions requesting a release.
Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said crack offenders would clog the courts with petitions requesting a release. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The federal government said yesterday that it has received hundreds of court orders reducing the prison sentences of crack cocaine offenders in the two days since new sentencing guidelines took effect.

A spokeswoman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons could not say how many prisoners have already been released under the U.S. Sentencing Commission's new guidelines, but the bureau has processed about 400 orders modifying prison terms nationwide.

Some activists say the guidelines bring a much-delayed sense of equity, but the Bush administration asserts that they will result in the release of violent criminals.

More than 3,000 crack offenders are eligible for release within the year, according to an analysis by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The commission modified a 100 to 1 ratio disparity between sentences meted for crack and powder cocaine possession, saying that it was unfair because the drugs are virtually the same.

The Bush administration opposed the U.S. Sentencing Commission's decision to make the new guidelines retroactive for inmates currently serving sentences for crack cocaine crimes. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said that crack offenders would clog the courts with petitions requesting a release, and that "violent criminals" would eventually be returned to the streets.

Mukasey and other Justice Department officials asked Congress to block the commission's decision in several meetings of the House and Senate judiciary panels, but lawmakers declined to act.

As early as January, inmates started filing motions for sentence modifications. Judges reviewed the motions and notified federal prosecutors and public defenders that their petitions were being considered.

In the Eastern District of Virginia, which has the largest number of crack cocaine convictions and nearly 2,000 inmates who are eligible for release within the next year, one federal public defender, Michael Nachmanoff, said he submitted petitions for the release of 16 clients, one of whom was freed as of yesterday.

A D.C.-based activist group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, issued the names of four people who were released in Florida and California, including Natasha J. Marshall, 48, who walked out of Victorville Federal Correctional Complex on Monday.

"It was a beautiful day," Marshall said. A friend, Kathy Harden, picked her up outside the prison gate near San Bernardino, Calif., and Marshall, who served nearly 11 years of a 15-year sentence for possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, said she was overjoyed because "I could hug my friend, and she didn't have to go one way, and I didn't have to go another. I could go with her."

The Sentencing Commission joined federal judges, public defenders, probation officers and activists in condemning the sentencing disparity because of cases such as Marshall's. She was arrested with her husband, Archie, a drug dealer, in August 1996 and convicted, she said, even though she never touched the drugs or counted the money he earned from dealing it.

"We had been married a long time before he got involved," she said. Marshall was unaware of the sentencing disparity or that a sentence for possessing or distributing crack can be increased if a gun is present at the time of arrest, no matter who it belongs to.


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