Va. Crack Offenders Released

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 13, 2008

The first Virginia crack cocaine offenders eligible for reduced sentences because of eased federal guidelines were released early from prison last week.

The majority of eligible inmates are in Virginia's Eastern District, which ranks first among 94 federal districts nationwide in the number of crack offenders eligible for reduced sentences under the new rules, according to U.S. Sentencing Commission estimates.

About 240 such offenders in the state are eligible to be released by Nov. 1, according to an October analysis by the commission.

Last year, the commission amended federal guidelines to partially reduce a 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing standards between crack and powder cocaine offenses. The amendment was to apply to new cases, but the commission later voted to apply the new standards retroactively, meaning some inmates serving time for crack offenses could petition the court for early release.

The change was opposed by some members of the Bush administration, including Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who argued that many of the eligible inmates were gang members and serious violent offenders and that releasing them early would pose a public safety risk.

As of last week, prisons in the Eastern District had released early about a half-dozen inmates, all of whom were nonviolent offenders, said Michael Nachmanoff, chief public defender for the district.

"Those that suggested the floodgates would be opened, it didn't happen," Nachmanoff said. "These were people that were going to be released anyway, probably by the end of this year."

Nachmanoff has filed 16 petitions on behalf of clients, all unopposed by prosecutors, for reduced sentences. Twelve petitions were approved by a judge, one was denied and three cases are pending, Nachmanoff said last week.

The Eastern District, which stretches from Northern Virginia to the Tidewater area, has about 1,404 inmates eligible for reduced sentences over the next three decades, 7.2 percent of the national total, according to sentencing commission estimates. The area with the second-highest number is the Middle Florida District, which has 4 percent of the country's eligible inmates.

Under the old guidelines, offenses involving 5 grams of crack fell into the same sentencing range as those involving 500 grams of powder cocaine. The new standards partially close that gap, although sentencing guidelines for crack offenses remain far stricter than those involving powder, officials said.

"These reductions were very modest," Nachmanoff said.

The rationale for tougher mandatory crack sentences, which began in the 1980s, was that the drug was associated with greater levels of violence than other drugs, a trend former U.S. attorney Richard Cullen said he witnessed firsthand as the Eastern District prosecutor in the early 1990s.

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