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April 3, 2008

Great press coverage of crack retroactivity at one month

Richard Schmitt has this effective piece in today's Los Angeles Times documenting that, a month after the new federal crack guidelines became retroactive, many defendants have not gotten sentence reductions.  The article is headlined, "Freedom eludes many crack inmates: Though new rules have reduced sentences for some, others remain behind bars because of bureaucratic delays and Justice Department opposition."  Here are excerpts:

New federal sentencing guidelines designed to end the racially tinged disparity between prison sentences for powder and crack cocaine dealers went into effect a month ago, and so far more than 3,000 inmates have had their prison terms reduced. Dozens have been released, including at least 15 in California, but many others who should have been released have not. Attorneys involved in the process blame bureaucratic delays as well as opposition from the Justice Department.

In North Carolina, which has the country's fifth largest population of crack offenders eligible for early release, four inmates have been freed out of some three dozen who lawyers say should have been released, in some cases, years ago. The delays appear to be due in part to a procedural bottleneck: Federal judges there did not approve a plan for processing requests for sentence reductions until five days before the new rules were to go into effect. Courts in parts of Texas and south Florida also appear to be lagging....

As of Tuesday, the federal Bureau of Prisons said it had received 3,077 signed orders from judges modifying the sentences of prisoners nationwide. The prisons bureau won't say how many have actually been released; even after the reductions, some inmates will still have much time to serve.

In Dallas, one judge has refused to allow federal defenders to represent crack offenders in his court, saying they have no right to counsel at this stage of the proceedings. That has left hundreds of inmates having to file jailhouse petitions to gain their freedom.

After that ruling, the federal public defender in Dallas, Richard Anderson, sent out a mass mailing to several hundred eligible inmates to help them prepare their cases. Many of the inmates' applications are incomplete or have errors. The complexities of federal sentencing law have caused added confusion. "The playing field isn't very level," Anderson said. Some judges have recently begun to reconsider the approach and are more readily appointing lawyers for inmates, he said.

The delays stand in sharp contrast to the experience in other regions of the country where the new rules have unleashed an outpouring of federal clemency. The process seems to be working best in jurisdictions where prosecutors, judges and probation officers were working weeks and in some cases months in advance of the effective date to mitigate delays....

Among California crack offenders gaining early releases was a Fresno woman, Stacey Candler, 34, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1996 after police caught up with her live-in boyfriend, a crack dealer. Also released was Vernon Watts, 37, of Sacramento, whose 22-year-sentence was shaved by about four years. "I have been waiting for this for a long time," Watts said in an interview after his release....

Though I often criticize the traditional media for their coverage of sentencing issues, this LA Times article and other similar press reports from local papers have been extraordinarily valuable in providing a picture of how crack retroactivity is working — and not working — in different parts of the country.  I am hopeful (but not especially optimistic) that the US Sentencing Commission will soon provide some comprehensive data and analysis of how crack retroactivity is going.  I would guess that the USSC is working hard on this issue, but that we will not see any public data and analysis for some time.

April 3, 2008 at 09:26 AM | Permalink


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The strange part is that in some districts, the the chief judge has authored an administrative order (which gets filed into any case where a prisoner files anything) appointing the PD unless and until someone else files an appearance.

Posted by: S.cotus | Apr 3, 2008 2:36:27 PM

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