Pubdate: Sun, 11 Oct 2015
Source: Richmond Register (KY)
Copyright: 2015 Associated Press


WASHINGTON (AP) - A push to overhaul criminal sentencing is prompting 
the early release of thousands of federal drug prisoners, including 
some whom prosecutors once described as threats to society, according 
to an Associated Press review of court records.

About 6,000 inmates are due to be freed from custody in the coming 
month, the result of changes made last year to guidelines that 
provide judges with recommended sentences for specific crimes. 
Federal officials say roughly 40,000 inmates could be eligible for 
reduced sentences in coming years.

Many of them are small-time drug dealers targeted by an approach to 
drug enforcement now condemned by many as overly harsh and expensive. 
But an AP analysis of nearly 100 court cases also identified 
defendants who carried semi-automatic weapons, had past convictions 
for robbery and other crimes, moved cocaine shipments across states, 
and participated in international heroin smuggling.

Supporters of lighter drug sentences say there's no evidence that 
longer punishment protects public safety. Studies show that inmates 
released early aren't more likely to reoffend than those who serve 
their entire sentences.

Still, the broad spectrum of defendants granted early release - 
including some about whom prosecutors not long ago raised dire 
warnings - underscores the complex decisions confronting the 
government as it pursues an overhaul of drug sentencing.

"I'm a career prosecutor. I'm a law-and-order girl, and I believe 
that you need to send dangerous people to prison for a very long 
time," said Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. "But I think that we 
need to be smart about deciding who are those dangerous people."

Willie Best, a one-time District of Columbia drug dealer whose 
sentence was already slashed under past crack guideline changes, had 
an additional month taken off and is due out in 2016.

Prosecutors in 2008 said Best helped run a drug-dealing organization, 
shot at someone he believed had stolen from him and, after fleeing as 
warrants were served, was found in a stolen car with an assault rifle 
and other guns. His lawyer described him as the product of a 
troubled, impoverished upbringing. And Best, in an interview from 
prison, called himself a loving father who bears no resemblance to 
his past self.

"It's been a long time coming. Eight years is a long time," he said. 
"I came in one way. I'm coming out another."

Guidelines set by the U.S. Sentencing Commission offer recommended 
minimum and maximum terms for federal crimes. The independent 
commission voted last year to reduce ranges for drug offenses, then 
applied those changes to already-imprisoned convicts.

Since then, prisoners have sought relief from judges, who can reject 
those they consider to be public safety threats. About three-quarters 
of requests had been granted as of August.

The first wave is due around Nov. 1, and most of those getting early 
release are already in halfway houses or under home confinement. 
Others will be released to immigration authorities for eventual deportation.

Though the commission has repeatedly tinkered with the guidelines, 
including narrowing the disparity between crack and powder cocaine 
sentences that resulted in disproportionately long penalties for 
blacks defendants, the latest revision is its most sweeping because 
it covers all drug types.

The commission delayed implementation by a year to allow judges time 
to review requests and weed out inappropriate candidates and to 
arrange for defendants to be moved to halfway houses.

"Nothing to date comes close to what this shift is likely to produce 
over the next decade or so, starting this year," said Marc Mauer of 
the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

The action, along with an Obama administration clemency initiative 
and directives against mandatory minimum sentences, is part of a 
national effort to rethink punishments for a drug offender population 
that comprises roughly half the federal inmate count.

New bipartisan legislation in the Senate aimed at reducing spending 
on a prison system that sucks up nearly one-third of the Justice 
Department budget would give judges greater sentencing discretion and 
ease penalties for nonviolent criminals. House lawmakers are also 
expected to unveil criminal justice legislation this week.

Supporters call the commission's move, which would on average pare 
two years from sentences and in many cases just months, a modest 
dialing-back of punishments that were too harsh to begin with and 
wouldn't be imposed today.

Research shows "longer lengths of stay cost taxpayers a tremendous 
amount but don't add any additional crime-control value," said Adam 
Gelb, a Pew Charitable Trusts criminal justice expert.

But absent foolproof formulas, judges are grappling with balancing 
cost against public safety.

The issue arose last month in Washington, D.C., where a judge 
rejected early release bids from two organizers of a 1980s-era 
cocaine trafficking operation. Though both were sentenced in 1990, 
the judge declared them to be continuing threats and chastised 
prosecutors for appearing to dismiss the pair's involvement in 
violent and calculating crime.

Others with shortened sentences are defendants whom prosecutors said 
had squandered repeated opportunities.

Regis Payne is due out in 2017 after his 82-month sentence for 
selling PCP in the District of Columbia was cut to 60 months. Before 
his 2012 sentencing, prosecutors called him a "calamity waiting to 
happen," undeterred by past convictions. Roscoe Minns was cleared for 
release in November, though prosecutors in 2012 highlighted prior 
assault and theft convictions in pursuing stiff punishment.

Though some released early will reoffend, most will not, 
statistically speaking, said Ohio State law professor Doug Berman.

"Mark my words: The sky will not fall," said Julie Stewart of 
Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Tuan Evans, who sold pistols and cocaine to undercover officers, had 
11 months shaved off his 108-month sentence. He wrote from prison 
that he's acquired haircutting skills and hopes to start a 
landscaping business and mentor children once he's freed. Records 
show a 2018 release date.

"You don't have to lock us up and throw away the key when we make a 
mistake," he said.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom