Pubdate: Sun, 16 Dec 2007
Source: News & Observer (Raleigh, NC)
Copyright: 2007 The News and Observer Publishing Company
Authors: Anne Blythe and Thomasi McDonald, Staff Writers
Cited: Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Referenced: Gall v. United States
Referenced: Kimbrough v. United States
Bookmark: (Sentencing - United States)
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


Hopes Stir for More Than 1,400 N.C. Inmates, but a Lawyer Warns That 
the Changes Won't Open Any Floodgates

A federal ruling that could bring reduced sentences for more than 
1,400 North Carolina crack cocaine offenders is being hailed by some 
as a victory for black America, a step toward easing racial 
disparities in the justice system.

But some of the prosecutors who helped slam prison doors on the 
federal inmates say the sentencing changes could open vulnerable, 
drug-plagued communities to more trouble.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two rulings last week that give federal 
judges broader sentencing discretion, particularly when handing out 
sentences to crack offenders.

The next day, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines 
for federal prison sentences, decided that its recent easing of 
recommended sentences for crack offenses should be retroactive.

That news prompted hundreds of families across North Carolina to 
contact lawyers, asking whether jailed children, parents or siblings 
might get a break.

James "Butch" Williams, a Durham lawyer, said such calls have been 
"blowing my phone up," but he has been telling callers that the 
commission's decision is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

"It's not going to open up the floodgates like everyone thinks it 
is," Williams said.

According to a U.S. Sentencing Commission analysis, 1,461 inmates in 
North Carolina will be eligible for resentencing after March 3, with 
nearly 28 percent eligible for release over the next couple of years.

Most people in this state with crack offenses, though, are not in the 
federal system. Triangle prosecutors say only 10 percent to 15 
percent of their cases are tried in federal courts.

The eligible federal inmates -- 536 from the Western District; 489 in 
the Eastern District, which includes Wake County; and 436 in the 
Middle District, including Durham and Orange counties -- would have 
to petition a judge to be resentenced under the new guidelines.

Although specific numbers are elusive, commission statistics show 
that an eligible inmate might expect his sentence to be reduced by 17 
percent. Those who got the minimum sentence are out of luck.

Nekita Teel, a Raleigh resident whose brother and mother are behind 
bars on cocaine offenses, said she hopes at least one family member 
will get relief.

Gladys Stokley, 52, Teel's mother, will not benefit from the federal 
changes because she is serving 15 years in the North Carolina prison 
system for trafficking cocaine. She refused to testify against her 
son, who was accused of selling the drug from her home.

Law enforcement authorities in Wilmington raided Stokley's home in 
1998 after an informant told investigators about a stash of crack in 
a safe there, Teel said.

Darrell Stokley, 36, was convicted in the federal courts in 1999 of 
possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. That and an 
aiding and abetting conviction put him behind bars for 20 years.

Teel said her brother tried to work out a deal with prosecutors so 
his mom would not go to prison.

But neither Stokley could save the other. Now the son, who received 
the longer sentence, might get out sooner.

"We're trying to figure out what's going to happen," Teel said. "We 
hope the state sentences will change, too."

Crack Sentences Long

In the 1980s, when crack cocaine began appearing on the streets, 
tougher sentences were put in place for the drug in its rock form 
than in its powder form. Crack was thought to lead to more violence 
than powder cocaine, which was more prevalent among college students 
and the disco culture and club scene.

Until the new sentencing changes, a crime involving 5 grams of crack 
cocaine carried a mandatory sentence of five years in prison, and one 
involving 50 grams carried a 10-year penalty. It took 500 grams and 
1,000 grams of powdered cocaine to trigger the same five- and 10-year 

Four out of five crack cocaine offenders are black. The ratio is 
lower for blacks convicted of using or selling powder cocaine.

Civil rights advocates and other critics have pushed for years to 
address the disparity in sentencing. Crack cocaine, which sells on 
the streets for $10 to $20 a rock, according to law enforcement 
officials, is thought to be more prevalent in low-income and 
African-American neighborhoods than powdered cocaine.

"The NAACP has always held the position that the justice system ought 
to be just and the difference in the crack versus cocaine sentencing 
is inherently discriminatory," said the Rev. William J. Barber II, 
head of the state NAACP chapter. "The judicial system has to redeem 
itself; redemption is necessary if we're going to have a whole 
society that believes justice is just. These kinds of actions that 
happened this week are first steps, baby steps."

But George Holding, the top federal prosecutor for the Eastern 
District of North Carolina, says changes to the sentencing law are 
steps in the wrong direction.

"Crack cocaine remains a plague which affects some of our most 
vulnerable neighborhoods and citizens," Holding said in a statement 
Friday. "We refuse to surrender those vulnerable neighborhoods and 
citizens to drug dealers and gang members, so our aggressive 
prosecutions will continue."

Peter Anderson, a Charlotte defense lawyer who used to be a federal 
prosecutor, said the changes should shift some of the courtroom power 
back to judges, who have chafed for years at mandatory sentences.

"What we've seen since really the late 1980s throughout the '90s is a 
trend through which the enforcement has gotten harsher and the 
discretion has gotten broader with respect to the government," Anderson said.

With mandatory sentences on their side, prosecutors could work out 
tough plea deals with suspects worried about getting maximum time.

"The reason why I find the rulings and sentencing changes very 
significant, both on a practical level and symbolic levels, is the 
pendulum has swung to its maximum and now it's beginning to swing 
back," Anderson said. "My frustration when I was with the federal 
government was everyone was seeking to impose the maximum sentences. 
That was almost how prosecutors were rated or evaluated -- who's the toughest."

Powerful Prosecutors

LaFonda Jones-General, 36, knows firsthand how much power prosecutors 
had when it came to crack offenses.

Her husband, Benjamin General, 38, is serving more than 24 years in 
prison for conspiracy to distribute cocaine and possession of a 
firearm while trafficking drugs, a charge that Jones-General says was 
supported by more than 30 informants trying to get lighter sentences 
in the federal system.

Law enforcement officials accused General of being a kingpin in a 
vast drug operation.

"Kingpin?" Jones-General said. "He had 15 cents in his pocket when he 
was arrested. Our car had been repossessed, and I had $300 in the bank."

Staring at a possible 45 years to life behind bars and unable to pay 
thousands of dollars to a defense lawyer, General took a plea deal in 
2000 for fear that a jury might rule against him.

When the judge sentenced General to 295 months in prison for one 
count, his wife did the math. Jordan, their year-old son, would be 25 
when his daddy got out of prison.

It took awhile for General, a man who can barely read past the 
seventh-grade level, to fathom his fate for the next quarter-century. 
It hit him during a phone call from jail later that day.

"I asked him, 'Baby do you realize how much time you got?' " 
Jones-General said. "He said, 'Yeah, 295 months.' I said, 'No, baby. 
You got 24 and a half years.' He dropped the phone."

Fighting disparities

Jones-General knows she is not alone. Through her work with Families 
Against Mandatory Minimums, a national organization that advocates 
fair and proportionate sentencing laws, she has met many others with 
similar stories.

The federal Sentencing Commission made it clear that judges 
considering resentencing requests had discretion and could consider 
public safety risks in their rulings.

Jones-General called the Sentencing Commission's decision, "the best 
Christmas present ever," but she doesn't know whether to laugh, cry or scream.

"Even now I don't know how to act after all the pain this has caused 
me," she said.




The number of petitions already filed in the Eastern District of 
North Carolina for resentencing

10 Percent to 15 Percent:

Crack cases prosecuted at the federal level, according to Triangle 
prosecutors. The majority of cocaine cases in the Triangle are 
adjudicated in the state system.


The average reduction in sentences under an amendment to U.S. 
Sentencing guidelines that took effect Nov. 1 and will affect 70 
percent of the crack cocaine case sentences in federal courts, 
according to Families Against Mandatory Minimums.


The number of federal inmates who, according to the U.S. Sentencing 
Commission, could be eligible for resentencing March 3, when 
petitions for retroactive sentences can start to be considered.

National Racial and Ethnic Rates of Incarceration


412 per 100,000 residents, or 0.4 percent of all whites are incarcerated


2,290 per 100,000 residents, or 2.3 percent of all African-Americans 
are incarcerated


742 per 100,000, or 0.7 percent of Hispanics are incarcerated.

One in nine African-American men between 25 and 29 years old (11.7 
percent) are incarcerated.

Uneven Justice: State Rates of Incarceration by Race and Ethnicity by 
Marc Mauer and Ryan S. King, July 2007; the Sentencing Project 
Research and Advocacy for Reform 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake