Pubdate: Sun, 23 Aug 2015
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2015 The Tribune Co.
Author: Elaine Silvestrini


TAMPA - On Nov. 1, 120 federal drug offenders sentenced in Tampa will 
be released from prison as part of a rollback of federal drug penalties.

Among the prisoners tasting freedom will be Lucas Lopez, 86, and his 
son, Benito, 47, Miami commercial fishermen who have served 22 years 
of their 30-year sentences after being convicted of conspiracy to 
distribute more than 5 kilos of cocaine in Tampa.

For both men, it was their first conviction. Neither had any 
disciplinary issues in 22 years behind bars, according to their 
lawyer, Conrad Kahn of the Federal Public Defender's office.

Maylin Lopez is thrilled she will soon be able to share her life with 
the father and brother who went away when she was 12.

"I really look forward to spending his last couple of years of life 
so I can share with him, my kids, their grandfather next to them," 
said Lopez, who is now 34 with 4-year-old twins. "It's been very hard 
for me just having my mother and my siblings."

Lucas and Benito Lopez are among thousands of federal inmates 
benefitting from a Smart on Crime initiative from the Justice 
Department, with support from both political parties.

The initiative includes an increase in clemency reviews and a 
retroactive change in sentencing guidelines for drug convictions, 
known as Drugs Minus 2, allowing most drug offenders to receive lower 
sentences. The first prisoners to receive the reduction will be 
released on Nov. 1, with others following later.

The changes are fueled by desire for both justice and financial savings.

Federal Public Defender Donna Elm's office calculated that the 
sentence reductions in the Middle District of Florida will save 
taxpayers more than $21 million.

Recently, officials calculated that the changes have shaved a total 
of 8,341 months - 695 years - from prison terms of inmates sentenced 
in the district.

"Based on the average cost of incarceration of inmates nationally, 
the work we have done so far under the 782 Amendment has saved 
taxpayers $21,283,347.40," Elm said in an email to her staff. "There 
are many more cases we are still going through of course, and this 
number will grow substantially by the time we are done. "

"We don't always think about that," Elm told The Tampa Tribune. "You 
just think about the unfairness to the guys, but there's a big 
unfairness to the taxpayers as well."

Robert Weissert of Florida TaxWatch said Elm's numbers are "fascinating."

"The numbers are clearly impressive and that is consistent with the 
research we've found not only at the federal level but other states," 
said Weissert, who is senior vice president for research at the 
organization, which supports sentence reform in Florida state courts. 
"We've seen those kind of things in states all over the country.

"This is just another example of how these kinds of reforms can 
really save taxpayer money," Weissert said. "This is something 
Florida should look into."

David Rhodes, chief of the Appellate Division of the U.S. Attorney's 
Office, said the majority of inmates deemed eligible for sentence 
reductions are receiving them. A small number, he said, are being 
denied because of public safety concerns such as troubling criminal 
histories or disciplinary issues in prison.

Rhodes said the change will save taxpayer money in prison costs but 
will lead to other costs, likely not as high, such as expenses 
incurred when some of the released inmates commit new crimes. The 
change, Rhodes said, "wasn't solely a cost-cutting measure."

By the end of the year, 240 drug offenders sentenced in the Middle 
District of Florida will be released early, according to Joe Collins, 
chief probation officer for the district.

All of them will be on probation.

"A huge concern is how are we are going to supervise that many folks 
coming out at once," Collins said. "A busy week for our division 
might be 15 to 20 (prisoners) coming out. So that is a concern for us 
to have 120 coming out" at once.

Collins said his staff has been preparing by examining caseloads. 
Where offenders were eligible to have their probation end early, that 
was done. Collins has hired three additional probation officers and 
may hire more.

He said the district is third in the country for the number of cases 
affected by Drugs Minus 2. He said officials expect that number to 
rise to at least 1,500.

Local law enforcement will be notified, as is always the case when 
specific individuals are to be released, Collins said. But there is 
no special plan to have law enforcement prepare for the expected 
influx of former inmates into communities. Any extra warning "I think 
would be prejudicial," Collins said.

Elm said most of the offenders "do fairly well when they get out" and 
do not pose a problem for the community.

Even as federal officials work through the petitions for release 
under the drug changes, they are preparing for the possibility of 
even more releases because of a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 
June that invalidated part of the Armed Career Criminal Act.

The invalidated provision had significantly increased sentences for 
felons in possession of a firearm with three previous convictions for 
qualifying offenses. The statute's description of qualifying offenses 
included what's called the "residual clause," which is a broad 
category of offenses that "otherwise involve conduct that presents a 
serious potential risk of injury to another." The Supreme Court ruled 
that clause is unconstitutionally vague.

Now offenders who were given long prison sentences because of 
previous convictions covered by the residual clause stand to be 
released early. Among the prior offenses now not covered under the 
law are assault and fleeing and eluding, Rhodes said. The courts have 
yet to rule on whether some other offenses will be covered, such as 
burglary and carjacking.

It's not clear if the ruling will be applied retroactively, and 
authorities are still assessing its impact, but Rhodes said it is 
likely to be significant.

Even if the decision isn't retroactive, it will apply in cases that 
were already under appeal on the issue, and Rhodes said there are 
quite a few of those in the Middle District of Florida.

The district stretches from Fort Myers to the Georgia border. Elm 
said most of the inmates being released under Drugs Minus 2 were 
sentenced in Tampa. More of them are from the Tampa area, she said, 
than the rest of the district combined.

Lucas and Benito Lopez were both convicted of conspiracy with intent 
to distribute 5 kilos or more of cocaine. Khan said case documents 
say Lucas Lopez used his fishing boat to serve as a lookout during 
narcotics shipments and his son introduced a federal informant to 
other members of the conspiracy.

The investigation culminated in a sting involving undercover customs 
agents who posed as suppliers.

"I remember my mom getting a phone call in the middle of the night 
saying they had been arrested and I remember going through the 
trial," Maylin Lopez said. "I was so young. I hardly knew what was 
going on exactly."

She said the family believes her father and brother were set up by a 
friend of her brother's. She said her brother was vulnerable to 
manipulation because he had a learning disability. He also needed 
money because he was going through a divorce, couldn't afford a 
lawyer and was in danger of losing the ability to see his young 
daughter, she said.

"Right away, his friend wrapped him around the finger and made it 
seem like it was something great that he was going to do," Maylin 
Lopez said. Her brother, she said, "never had any drug issues. He's 
never had any thoughts about drug dealing. Nothing like that. We're a 
hard-working family."

Since the men went to prison, the family had heard talk about 
potential changes in sentencing laws. "I never expected for it to 
really happen," Maylin said.

The father and son used to be in the same federal prison in Miami, 
but the father was transferred recently to a camp across the street, 
Maylin Lopez said. Now they have different visiting days, which has 
made it hard on the family, especially Maylin's 71-year-old mother, 
who has numerous health problems.

When he went to prison, Benito's daughter was 2. Now, she's 24 and a 
mother herself, Maylin Lopez said.

"A whole lot changed," she said.

"My dad is in complete shock" about the early release, Maylin Lopez 
said. "He's really anxious to get out of there." She said her 
father's health is bad; he recently underwent heart surgery and is 
now waiting for treatment for prostate issues. He also needs total 
knee replacement surgery and has skin cancer from working for years 
as a fisherman.

"Health wise, he's not all that good," she said. "If he was home, I 
could take him to good doctors."

Her father immigrated from Cuba and never became an American citizen, 
she said. She worries that with the changing political climate, her 
father might be deported after he is released from prison. "I just 
pray every day that it doesn't happen," she said. "He's not a 
criminal. He didn't kill anybody.

"My brother's excited" about getting out, she said. "He wants to come 
home and spend time with me and my kids. He wants to see his 
daughter, his granddaughter. He wants to spend time with my mom."

She said she's planning a big celebration to gather all the extended 
family her father and brother haven't seen for years. They'll have 
paella, pork and black beans and rice, and lobsters and other seafood 
the men have been craving.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom