Coming Home After a Reduced Sentence

Willie Aikens, seen here in 1994, is among the 35 percent of inmates released since May 31 who were granted sentence reductions by federal courts.
Willie Aikens, seen here in 1994, is among the 35 percent of inmates released since May 31 who were granted sentence reductions by federal courts. (Kansas City Star Files)

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 8, 2008

Days after her release from prison, Nerika Jenkins made a bold prediction: "I'll bounce right back into society."

Although the world changed considerably over the 11 years of her imprisonment, she said, "I'm not afraid." She took vocational classes -- masonry, carpentry, painting, culinary arts, Microsoft Excel and horticulture -- while serving time in Philadelphia and Danbury, Conn. "I'm just ready to achieve my short-term goal, building a nursing home," she said. "They're always in need of places for the elderly."

More than 7,000 crack cocaine offenders such as Jenkins, 36, have received reduced sentences since March, when the U.S. Sentencing Commission put retroactive sentence guidelines into effect to offset what the commission felt were overly harsh punishments for crack cocaine related crimes, and it is an open question whether they will succeed or return to a life behind bars.

The majority of the reductions so far have been granted in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, covering Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas, according to a report by the Sentencing Commission on retroactive crack cocaine sentencing released in May. By contrast, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, covering California, Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Alaska, Nevada, as well as other states and territories, has granted about the same number of reductions as the smallest jurisdiction, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington.

About 35 percent of inmates who were granted reductions by federal courts had been released as of May 31, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Among them is Willie Mays Aikens, the former Major League Baseball slugger whose 15-year sentence for possessing 63 grams of crack cocaine -- about the weight of a large Snickers candy bar -- made him a cause celebre among activists fighting long crack cocaine punishments.

Aikens was released in the first week of June, nearly 22 years to the day after the cocaine overdose of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. Bias's death spurred Congress to pass the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986. Under the mistaken belief that Bias's death was caused by crack cocaine, lawmakers made sentences for crack cocaine crimes harsher than those committed for powder cocaine by a 100-to-1 ratio.

Nearly 90 percent of those who received the tough sentences for crack cocaine were black men and women. Most users and dealers of powder cocaine are white and Latino.

Jenkins is one of the people who activists say were wrongly affected by the law: wives and girlfriends. She was snared by police in New York who accused her of collaborating with a boyfriend who was dealing crack in Virginia. Prosecutors asked her to testify, but she refused, saying she knew nothing of the boyfriend's operation.

"I went to trial, and they gave me 230 months, 19 years," said Jenkins, a first-time offender. When her anger subsided, she vowed not to languish in prison, and she took courses.

When the sentencing commission decided to make the new guidelines retroactive so that convicts in prison could take advantage, Jenkins and her mother, Ira Lee Johnson, filed a motion to reduce her jail time.

"I became aware of it in January," she said. The next month, a judge in Virginia, where the case originated, sent her a letter informing her that she was eligible for immediate release. Prosecutors were given a week to respond, and they did, objecting to a reduction. The judge overruled them.

Within weeks, Jenkins's sentence was reduced from 230 months to 151. "I had to serve four extra months because of a discrepancy between what the judge said and what the paperwork said," Jenkins complained, but soon she was in a halfway house.

Natasha J. Marshall, 48, underwent a similar experience in Fresno, Calif., when police arrested her husband, a drug dealer. Marshall said she had no idea that he was dealing, but she was sentenced to 15 years. A sentence reduction released her in March, after she had served 11.

Now living in an apartment with her daughter, Marshall is readjusting to a world dominated by devices that were not widely used when she entered the system: cellphones, flat-screen televisions and personal computers. Wanting a job, she was startled to find that applications are now submitted online. After spending a quarter of her life behind bars, she is still haunted.

"I can't sleep for more than five hours," Marshall said, with the cacophony of prison life echoing in her dreams. After 11 years of showers, she always takes a bath.

Slowly but surely, said her probation officer, Brian Bedrosian, Marshall is recovering nicely. "She calls in, and she's taking care of business," he said.

Marshall enrolled in an online business administration course at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. "She's doing very well," said Brian Zigich, her enrollment adviser. "She's on the ball. She's one of my best students. You can see the motivation in her. She's one of the few you don't have to worry about."

Zigich's characterization of Marshall defies concerns by the Justice Department about the impact that crack sentencing reductions would have on public safety. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey warned that the release of crack offenders would possibly return dangerous drug dealers back to neighborhoods ravaged by the crack cocaine trade.

Mukasey and other department officials argued that inmates would overwhelm the federal court system with motions for sentence reductions, forcing prosecutors to virtually retry the cases.

That has yet to happen, said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "We haven't heard anything from the department or elsewhere bearing out their initial fear that these releases would happen in some en masse way, pouring out people into communities," she said.

Price acknowledged that it is too early to fully gauge the impact of the reductions. "There will be people who will find themselves in this situation again -- there's no question about that," she said. "But that would happen if we let them [out] early or at their regular time."

The Bureau of Prisons, federal probation officials and the commission have not released information showing how many inmates have committed crimes in the three months since the retroaction was applied.

"I'm very hopeful that our federal government is keeping track of the recidivism numbers," said Charles D. Stimson, a former federal prosecutor who is now a senior legal fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "I'm not one to suggest that all those who are eligible for release will be re-arrested. I'm sure they won't be. But it would be helpful to inform the public and [Congress] on an ongoing basis."


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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