Pubdate: Mon, 17 Aug 2015
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2015 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Note: Seldom prints LTEs from outside it's circulation area.
Author: Greg Moran


Federal Penalties Reduced by Up to Five Years, Even for Those Already in Prison

It was nearly 20 years ago that Francisco Mejia's career as a customs 
and border officer came to an inglorious end, when he was sentenced 
to 24 years in prison for aiding in the smuggling of tons of cocaine 
through the Calexico border crossing.

After he was sentenced in 1997, he pretty much vanished into the 
federal prison system, remembered only as an early example of the 
corruption that still plagues border law enforcement agencies.

Mejia's case surfaced again this past November, when he quietly filed 
a petition to reduce his sentence under a historic rule change 
adopted by federal authorities in 2014.

In March, with no opposition from federal prosecutors, Mejia's motion 
was granted by U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Huff, and his 
sentence cut by nearly five years.

Mejia is one of hundreds of inmates who have filed motions in San 
Diego federal court seeking to reduce their prison sentences under 
the new rules.

The changes affected one factor - the "base offense level" - that 
judges use to calculate the total sentence for defendants in most 
drug cases. The U.S. Sentencing Commission made the rule retroactive, 
meaning people serving sentences could seek a lower term.

At the time, the commission estimated some 42,000 inmates nationally 
could be eligible for the reductions. Any reductions granted by 
judges, however, would not take effect until Nov. 1 of this year.

With that date approaching, inmates have been filing pleas to lower 
their sentences. Through Aug. 4, there were 656 individual motions 
filed by inmates seeking to lower their sentence in San Diego. Judges 
here have granted 123, according to statistics from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

An additional 50 have been denied. The rest are pending.

The 57-month reduction for Mejia, from 292 months to 235, was the 
largest in a random sample reviewed by The San Diego Union-Tribune 
last week, and well above the average for San Diego cases.

James Fife, a federal public defender who is handling the cases and 
tracking them locally, said the average reduction is 15 months. In 
all, he said his office has a list of about 1,200 potential cases, 
though not all of the inmates will be eligible for the reductions.

The cases reflect the wide spectrum of defendants prosecuted for drug 
cases in San Diego's border district over the years. Jorge Aguilera 
Cortez was sentenced in 2011 to 61/2 years for his role in a 
methamphetamine distribution ring. That was reduced on June 15 by eight months.

On the other end of the spectrum is a motion from Jesus Palma 
Salazar, sentenced in 2008 to 16 years in prison for smuggling what 
prosecutors said was tons of cocaine in the 1990s. His sentence 
reduction is being opposed by prosecutors who in court papers link 
him to drug kingpin Jesus "El Chapo" Guzman.

The amendment passed by the U.S. Sentencing Commission altered the 
often-complicated math that is the basis of federal sentencing, as 
the Obama administration reassesses criminal justice policy.

Each defendant gets a "base offense level" that is determined by the 
amount of drugs involved. That number is coupled with another, based 
on the defendant's criminal history, and both are plugged into a 
table that determines the range of sentence.

The amendment lowered the base offense for most drug crimes by two 
levels. While that sounds modest, the change was seen as historic, 
because it means that some 42,000 federal inmates convicted of drug 
offenses could be in line for a lesser sentence - and could be set free.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom