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Federal Crack Cocaine Prisoners Start Coming Home [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #707)
Politics & Advocacy

Hundreds of federal crack cocaine prisoners began walking out prison Tuesday, the first beneficiaries of a US Sentencing Commission decision to apply retroactive sentencing reductions to people already serving time on federal crack charges. As many as 1,800 federal crack prisoners are eligible for immediate release and up to 12,000 crack prisoners will be eligible for sentence reductions that will shorten their stays behind bars.

The numbers of those released vary by region, but federal prosecutors and defenders said Tuesday they would be freed by the dozens in different cities across the land. The public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia expected 75 to be released this week, while his colleague in San Antonio estimated 15 or 20 and his colleague in St. Louis estimated 30 to 50. The federal prosecutor for the Northern District of West Virginia said 92 would walk free there this week.

At this point, there is some confusion over how many people will be released and how fast.

"We're not sure how many are getting out today," a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson told the Chronicle Tuesday. "This is the first day. We're reviewing files, checking for detainers, so some might not be released. And we don't have a date set yet for when we're releasing numbers."

The releases come after Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act in August 2010, which shrank the much maligned disparity between mandatory minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine from 100:1 to 18:1. After Congress acted, the Sentencing Commission then moved to make those changes retroactive, resulting in the early releases beginning this week.

"For the past 25 years, the 100:1 crack/powder disparity has spawned clouds of controversy and an aura of unfairness that has shrouded nearly every federal crack cocaine sentence that was handed down pursuant to that law. I say justice demands this result," said Ketanji Brown Jackson, vice chairwoman of the Sentencing Commission, after it decided on retroactivity in June.

Both the Fairness in Sentencing Act and the Sentencing Commission's decision to make it retroactive provoked ire from congressional conservatives. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), opposed both.

"This bill reduces the penalties for crack cocaine," Smith said during debate on the bill. "Why would we want to do that? We should not ignore the severity of crack addiction or ignore the differences between crack and powder cocaine trafficking. We should worry more about the victims than about the criminals."

But after a quarter century of skyrocketing federal prison populations driven almost entirely by harshly punitive drug laws like the crack statute, Smith's view no longer holds sway. That's in part due to years of efforts by reform advocates, who decried the evident racial disparities in the prosecution and sentencing of crack cases, as well as the Sentencing Commission itself, which for more than a decade has urged Congress to fix the law.

Despite the initial uncertainly, activists, newly freed prisoners, and family members greeted the event with elation. "Beginning today, thousands of individuals across the country will get another shot at justice," said Julie Stewart, director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "These people were forced to serve excessive sentences under a scheme Congress has admitted was fundamentally flawed, but, today, they can ask for long overdue relief."

"It's unbelievable. I'm ecstatic," said William Johnson, a Virginia man convicted of crack distribution conspiracy in 1997 and imprisoned ever since. The 39-year-old told CNN he only found out Monday he was going free the next day.

The joyous reunions taking place this week notwithstanding, the drug war juggernaut keeps on rolling, and there is much work remaining to be done. Not all prisoners who are eligible for sentence reductions are guaranteed to receive one, and retroactivity won't do anything to help people still beneath their mandatory minimum sentences. A bill with bipartisan support in Congress, H.R. 2316, the Fair Sentencing Clarification Act, would make Fair Sentencing Act changes to mandatory minimum sentences retroactive as well, so that crack offenders left behind by the act as is would gain its benefits.

And the Fair Sentencing Act itself, while an absolute advance from the 100:1 disparity embodied in the crack laws, still retains a scientifically unsupportable 18:1 disparity. For justice to obtain, legislation needs to advance that treats cocaine as cocaine, no matter the form it takes.

But even those sorts of reforms are reforms at the back end, after someone has already been investigated, arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced. Radical reform that will cut the air supply to the drug war carceral complex requires changes on the front end.

"We want sentencing reform; we'll take anything we can get," said Nora Callahan, director of the November Coalition, a drug reform group that focuses on federal drug prisoners. "But people have to start demanding that drug war policing tactics change, too. They could stop drug dealing when they see it and stop spending tax dollars on buy and bust operations. Those are front end solutions," she said.

"When the Sentencing Commission evaluated the sentencing schemes, they explained that 'the sentence begins at investigation,' exposing the police tactics that are the beginning of the sentencing process," Callahan continued. "Police control buy and busts and sting operations, and they determine how much drugs or cash they are going to talk some poor SOB into exchanging, or even simply discussing."

Some people imprisoned for too long under racially disparate US drug laws are walking free this week. Others are not. And as long as the drug war keeps rolling along, the federal prisons are going to keep filling up with its victims.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


itsme123 (not verified)

These are CRACK users and CRACK dealers. They're getting "JUSTICE"?? and LEGAL MEDICAL MARIJUANA DISPENSARIES are getting busted... UMMMM??!!!  WTF!!!???!!!

Thu, 11/03/2011 - 5:40am Permalink
JquaryLife (not verified)

Does anyone know how they are pulling names of federal prisoners to determine reduction? My best friend of 25 yrs has been in Leavenworth Kansas federal prison for 15 yrs and was wondering if they go over the inmates that have been incarcerated the longest with the longest sentences? Just curious if anyone knows. This was a conspiracy case only as he had no drugs when they raided his home.
Thu, 11/03/2011 - 12:15pm Permalink

it of course depends on how much stack counting went on in your friend's trial. Some charges disqualify consideration. Your friend needs to go to his counsellor at the prison and enquire about eligibility for resentencing. Check out legal news at FAMM. November doesn't have attorneys, my info is anecdotal. Hope you'll shoot me an email and tell me the outcome though....

Thu, 11/03/2011 - 4:02pm Permalink
William Aiken (not verified)

Recent studies that crack and powder cocaine have the same effects on the drugs users. So there is any disparity in sentencing to points the fear mongering by the media and congress that fueled the passage of these Draconian laws. When it comes to changing laws, It's hard to right a wrong when the opposition can accuse you of playing the race card as a reflex to a default argument.







Fri, 11/04/2011 - 12:51pm Permalink
Justsaying (not verified)

In reply to by William Aiken (not verified)

I'm not sure what studies you are talking about but as a former drug abuser I can say with that there is a BIG difference in the effect of crack vs cocain on the user, with crack being by far the more severe in both the short and long term. That aside it shouldn't matter to the government what one chooses to put into their bodies. It's a matter of personal freedom of choice. All choices have consequences and if people want to ruin their lives that's their. Decision to make. Let them loose their family, friends and employability on their own, I don't see the need for tax payer dollars to be wasted throwing people in cages to further their degradation and destroy the chance of successful recovery.
Mon, 11/07/2011 - 5:07pm Permalink

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