Tracknum: 23376.000701c2c876.715b4c20.d251be3f Pubdate: Thu, 30 Jan 2003 Source: Associated Press (Wire) Copyright: 2003 Associated Press Author: Associated Press Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/prison.htm (Incarceration) FREEDOM IN NEAR FUTURE FOR INMATES AFFECTED BY REPEAL OF MANDATORY LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- Convicted of cocaine possession, James DiVietri has spent the past 11 years in prison and expected to spend nearly 10 more years behind bars. But he becomes eligible for parole March 1, along with about 1,250 other first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. As many as 700 of them could be home by September, state prison officials say. A bill signed on Christmas Day by outgoing Gov. John Engler repealed Michigan's tough but widely criticized drug-sentencing law. The legislation requires judges to follow state sentencing guidelines when sending drug criminals to prison but gives them more discretion by eliminating minimum sentences. Under the old law, for example, someone possessing 50 to 224 grams of narcotics or cocaine in Michigan had to be sentenced to at least 10 years and up to 20 years in prison. The new law eliminates the 10-year minimum, allowing the judge to sentence an offender for any time up to 20 years. The original 1973 law, which made possession of 650 or more grams of illegal drugs punishable by mandatory life imprisonment, was aimed at drug kingpins. Instead, it swelled the prison population and parole officers' caseloads with lower-level, less dangerous offenders, critics said. "I spent 4 years prosecuting major narcotics cases before becoming a judge," Timothy Kenny, co-chief judge of Wayne County Circuit Court, told The Detroit News for a Thursday story. "The reality was, however, that the people that were getting the 20-30 (years in prison) and mandatory life sentences were not drug kingpins. We were locking up for a lifetime individuals with drugs who were only peripherally involved." DiVietri, now 53, was managing one of his family's restaurants in Lansing when he was arrested in a drug deal. He pleaded guilty in 1991 to possessing 225 to 649 grams of cocaine and was sentenced to 20-30 years in prison. "I have no one else to blame but myself. I brought it on myself," DiVietri told The News. But, he said: "The first two years (in prison), I thought somehow this was not real and I would somehow get out. The last nine years, I couldn't allow myself to think about freedom. Now for the first time, I can actually let go." By releasing the 1,250 nonviolent, first-time drug inmates -- each of whom costs $28,000 a year to house and feed -- the state will save $35 million annually and ease crowding in a prison system almost at its 50,000-bed capacity. Starting in 1982, persons released from prison after serving their sentences under the drug law were placed on parole for life. On March 1, parole for 3,218 offenders who have served at least five years will be terminated. That will save Michigan taxpayers another $6 million a year, based on the $1,900 annual cost of supervising each parolee. "That means some people were supervised by probation officers for over 20 years. Now that time and effort to maintain files on those people can end and probation officers can concentrate on watching more dangerous people," Kenny said. Corrections officials are examining the files of 7,600 inmates serving drug sentences to see how many others qualify for release.