February 22, 2008
by Darryl Fears
Most of the more than 1,500 crack cocaine offenders who are immediately eligible to petition courts to be released from federal prisons under new guidelines issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission are small-time dealers or addicts who are not career criminals and whose charges did not involve violence or firearms, according to a new analysis by the commission staff.
About 6 percent of the inmates were supervisors or leaders of drug rings, and about 5 percent were convicted of obstructing justice, generally by trying to get rid of their drugs as they were being arrested or contacting witnesses or co-defendants before trial, according to the analysis being circulated on Capitol Hill by the commission to counter Bush administration assertions that the guidelines would prompt the release of thousands of dangerous criminals.
About one-quarter of these inmates were given enhanced sentences because of weapons charges, though the charge can apply to defendants who were actually not carrying a gun or a knife but were with someone who was armed.
About 18 percent of the offenders’ sentences were reduced because they were arrested and charged for the first time, were forced into a drug ring by someone such as a boyfriend, were unwittingly caught up in a drug operation during a police raid, or for some other reason.
The largest group — 41 percent — consists of small-time crack offenders who do not fall under any of the criteria that would cause authorities to increase their sentences or have them reduced.
“What portion of these are violent and what portion of those are girlfriends just caught up . . . with their boyfriends and they’re serving for decades, more than bank robbers and murderers?” said Rep. Robert C. Scott (D-Va.), who has been critical of the administration’s attempts to overturn the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision to reduce federal prison sentences for crack offenders and make that policy retroactive to cover current prisoners.
The figures are at odds with the characterization of the inmates by Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey, who would like Congress to pass legislation voiding the U.S. Sentencing Commission policy before it takes effect March 3.
“Many of these offenders are among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system, and their early release . . . at a time when violent crime had increased in some communities will produce tragic but predictable results,” Mukasey said at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing.
The staff analysis indicated that about 6 percent of the inmates’ sentences were increased because they were supervisors or leaders of a drug crew of four or more, 6 percent of prisoners’ sentences were enhanced for arms specifications, and 1 percent were considered career criminals. The findings were consistent with a U.S. Sentencing Commission report to Congress in May that showed that 90 percent of federal crack cases did not involve violence. Only 5 percent involved a threat, and even fewer involved injury or death.
Crack offenders serve prison terms that are up to eight times as long as those of powder cocaine offenders because of a sentencing disparity mandated by Congress under the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act. The law created a 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine offenses, meaning that five grams of crack — about the size of two sugar cubes — drew the same mandatory minimum sentence as 500 grams of powder.
Many activists, federal public defenders, probation officers and federal judges have said the disparity is racially discriminatory. The overwhelming majority of crack cocaine offenders are black, while most powder cocaine offenders are white or Latino.
Under pressure, the commission moderately reduced the guidelines for future crack offenders in March. The guidelines went into effect in November after Congress declined to intervene. The next month, the commission decided to make the guidelines retroactive so that current inmates could petition to reduce their sentences.
The Justice Department opposed guideline reductions, but the commission pressed on. Last month, the commission created a list of 1,508 inmates who would be eligible for immediate release if their sentences were reduced under the guidelines and passed the names to the chief judge in each judicial district.
Michael S. Nachmanoff, a lawyer who studied the inmate list for the Eastern District of Virginia, which has the largest number of crack cases eligible for sentence reduction, and found that only 15 prisoners have a legitimate chance for release because of restrictions. The reductions are so moderate, he said, that the inmates would leave prison only a few months before they were scheduled to be released without them.
“We appreciate the commission’s effort to identify people who are potentially eligible for release, but what we are finding is that the numbers are fewer than those identified by the commission,” Nachmanoff said. “The suggestion that there will be many people released on March 3 is not borne out in the Eastern District of Virginia. These people aren’t gang members. They’re not overwhelmingly violent.”
But that is how they were portrayed on Capitol Hill not only by Mukasey but also by Republicans on the Judiciary c Committee. “Many of these criminals are repeat offenders who possessed firearms during the commission of a crime,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.).
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) said his gut told him that “if these people are released from prison, it will go right back into the communities where they were trafficking crack.”
Near the end of the hearing, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) scolded Mukasey, saying that he misrepresented how the inmates would be released. They must return to the courts where they were tried and appear before judges who have vowed not to grant sentence reductions to convicts with violent histories, Waters said.
“Nobody’s taking the key, unlocking the jails and saying, ‘Everybody out.’ That does not happen,” Waters said.
© 2008 The Washington Post
Selected comments about article left at Common Dreams.org:
PaulMagillSmith February 22nd, 2008 4:10 pm
The ‘War On Drugs’ is as ludicrous as the ‘War On Terror’, and just as much a failure. Both were initiated by an absurd propaganda campaign by radical right wing elements within the federal government, and have been perpetuated because hundreds of billions (or even trillions) of dollars are to be made by government cronies, corporate drug companies, and the PIC (prison industrial complex). It’s not about morality, public health, or national security, but MONEY and the politics of fear.Whatever happened to the indictments for G.H.W. Bush for conspiring to initially flood the US with crack cocaine through the CIA during the time of the Iran Contra affair…swept quietly under the rug just like all the other criminial un-American activities of the Bush crime family.I’ve seen people do just about every kind of drug imaginable, and can easily state the most dangerous & deadly ones are the legal ones (prescription medications, nicotine, aspartame, & alchohol), which cause far more deaths, ruined lives, & misery by a factor than ALL illegal drugs combined. To reiterate, it’s all about the MONEY.
shakker February 22nd, 2008 5:11 pm
What are the odds that any of these prisoners will be gainfully employed in jobs that pay enough to keep them away from crime and drugs? These are hidden unemployed that put the lie to the low unemployment numbers that are reported.Face it most of them are screwed.
skippyagogo41 February 22nd, 2008 5:18 pm
As the price of eggs, milk, gas and bread rise year after year, how many people know what happened to the price of pot, coke and heroin? I pay less money now to smoke weed than I did in the 80s. The supply of weed has never been affected by the war on drugs, I’ve only been arrested for possession once, and had the case thrown out of court ’cause I paid a good lawyer… Not from personal experience, but I do know that the price per gram of coke has dropped by half since its height of 100/gram.Heck of a job, there drug warriors. I can only imagine how many lives have been ruined in fighting a war that has had no hope of victory. I suppose that it’s a good thing those cops are looking to bust the pot heads tho, otherwise they might be invertigating corruption amongst the politiciens, judges and other crimes like assault, rape, child abuse or murders…
GottaGetOffTheGrid February 22nd, 2008 5:38 pm
According to the city police up here 1 kg of coke in 1996 was selling for 40,000 CAD now it is selling for 20,000 CAD.As for those who say that there would be an explosion of use if drugs were legalised and sold at liquer stores, its simply not true. there is no un-supplied demand in the market, infact there is an oversupply, which is why the price is dropping. if you want it, just ask. its easier to score a gram of coke at any bar around town than it is to get the waitress to bring you a beer…the War on Drugs has done nothing but keep the prices high, which is good for the CIA and their off-the-books-covert-ops and the Hells Angels. Sometimes I wonder how much $$ the Hells Angels donate to “Get-tough-on-Crime” candidates through their legitimate shell companies.
How available is crack cocaine?
White House Publication 2002:
What do YOU think of this new policy?