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November 3, 2011

"Changed crack sentencing rules leave a justice system in flux"

The title of this post is the headline of this effective article in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune which provides an in-depth review of all the challenges posed by the implementation of the new reduced federal sentencing guidelines for crack.  Here are excerpts:

Carlos Lamont Cleveland, 39, was jailed in 1995 on charges that he was the "right-hand man to the leader of a large and violent drug-trafficking organization" that distributed crack cocaine in Minnesota. But his sister stood by him as he kept challenging his 300-month sentence. This week, she got the news from her brother she had been waiting for: Cleveland would be returning home on Friday.

New sentencing rules that took effect on Tuesday made Cleveland one of more than 1,800 prisoners eligible for release right away, federal officials said. Creature comforts of a full-size bed, a freshly painted room and a bouquet of welcome-home balloons will await him in his hometown of Detroit....

Nationwide, more than 500 people were released from custody on Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said. In Minnesota, the change in the guidelines will mean an early release for 100 to 150 inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine crimes. The change is eventually expected to benefit 12,000 U.S. inmates, reducing sentences by an average of three years....

For the past few months, U.S. probation officers, federal defenders and federal prosecutors in Minnesota have been combing through hundreds of court files in an effort to find inmates who may be eligible for release under the new retroactive sentencing rules....

Hundreds of files fill a space in the federal public defender's office that they jokingly call the "crack room," Roe said. At least two lawyers review each file. "The last thing we want to do is miss somebody," she said.

So far, they've found 21 candidates for "immediate release," Roe said. But the number is still in flux. The U.S. attorney's office said it has identified 28 potential candidates for immediate release; the Probation Office said it might be somewhat fewer than that.

So far, orders have been signed for just four that reduced their sentences to time served. In addition to Cleveland, who got a 29- month reduction, they include Paris Lamar Wilson, sentenced in 1997 on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, possession and use of a firearm related to drug trafficking; Bobby Woods, sentenced in 2001 on charges of conspiracy and possession of cocaine base, and Steven Mitchell Gant, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of conspiracy and possession of cocaine base, cocaine and ecstasy.

The orders give the Bureau of Prisons 10 days to release the inmates. Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, said under the law, the bureau gets time to notify victims in some cases or even local law enforcement. The offenders will remain subject to post- prison "supervised release" even if, in effect, they served excess time under the new guidelines.

Some of the inmates affected by the changes have been imprisoned long after the time they would've been released had the new rules been in place when they were originally sentenced, Roe said. Two are already under electronic monitoring in their homes. Others are in half-way houses because they were already transitioning back into society as they neared the end of their original sentence.

Chief U.S. Probation Officer Kevin Lowry said some inmates who were released early after the first guidelines change experienced "a little bit of culture shock" at their sudden release. "Some did indicate that they had anxiety about being back in the community sooner than they expected," he said. Kerns said probation officers worked hard then and are working hard now to connect the outgoing offenders with social services to ensure they have a place to stay, as well as educational and employment opportunities. "That's what we'll continue to focus on, successful re-entry into the community and helping these folks turn back into successful, law abiding lifestyles," he said.

November 3, 2011 at 08:46 AM | Permalink

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