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New guidelines could mean earlier release for 19,500 crack offenders

WASHINGTON — A federal rule that will shorten prison time for new crack cocaine offenders went into effect Nov. 1.

Now the question is whether violators already behind bars will get a break, too.

It could mean earlier freedom for nearly 20,000 federal prisoners.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission heard the pros and cons at a hearing this week on whether its new guidelines for crack cocaine offenses should be retroactive.

"It is not often that courts are afforded the opportunity to ameliorate the wrongs of the past," said U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton of the District of Columbia.

Walton told the hearing that the commission, of which he is a member, "has the ability to undo some of the injustices associated with crack sentencing over the last 20 years."

A single gram of crack cocaine had triggered the same punishment as 100 grams of powder cocaine. Crack penalties had been as much as eight times longer than those for powder cocaine.

For years, voices across the legal community, from former Reagan administration attorney general Edwin Meese to the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, had been calling for more uniformity.

The change could lower the temperature on a racially charged debate. Convicted crack offenders tend to be black; convicted powder cocaine offenders tend to be white. The disparity in punishment evoked images of low-income blacks sitting in jail for crack longer than affluent whites caught with the same amount of cocaine, but in powder form.

Of the nearly 20,000 federal prisoners whose sentences could be reduced, 86 percent are black and 6 percent are white, according to the commission.

The new guidelines close the gap in sentencing somewhat and would mean an average sentence reduction of 27 months. Just over 3,800 drug offenders would be released in the first year, according to the commission.

But law enforcement is divided over the issue. The Bush Justice Department contends that the new sentencing guidelines will open the prison doors for scores of dangerous felons and jam the courts.

Releasing that many prisoners would "jeopardize community safety and threatens to unravel the success we have achieved in removing violent crack offenders from high-crime neighborhoods," Assistant Attorney General Alice Fisher said in a letter to the commission this month.

The Fraternal Order of the Police warned that felons who could be released were not "low-level dealers or first-time offenders." FOP President Chuck Canterbury told the hearing that 80 percent had previous convictions and 35 percent had used weapons in connection with their drug crimes.

"Clearly, these inmates are far more likely to re-offend," he said.

But supporters said the courts would be able to handle the increased workload. Judges, attorneys, civil rights groups and others said that fairness demands that offenders be treated equally regardless of when they were convicted.

"It doesn't make sense to say that the same crime on one day is worth 20 years and the next day it's worth 10 years," said Albert Riederer, a former Missouri prosecutor.

The commission is an independent federal advisory panel created in 1985 to standardize federal sentencing. Over the years it has changed guidelines and made them retroactive for marijuana, LSD and the painkiller Oxycodone.

The commission has no timetable for deciding the retroactivity issue.

Congress has twice before rejected the commission's recommendations about shorter sentences for crack cocaine. This time, Congress had until Nov. 1 to turn down recommendations that the commission offered in May, but it let the deadline pass.

NUMBER OF OFFENDERS BY FEDERAL JUDICIAL DISTRICT

Federal Judicial District........Number of offenders

TOTAL........19,500

Eastern Virginia........1,404

Middle Florida........772

South Carolina........753

Western Virginia........540

Western North Carolina........536

Western Texas........509

Eastern North Carolina........489

Eastern Texas........484

Northern West Virginia........470

Eastern Missouri........445

Middle North Carolina........436

Northern Ohio........396

Northern Illinois........377

Southern Illinois........370

Southern Florida........361

Middle Pennsylvania........358

Northern Texas........342

Southern Texas........342

Northern Florida........323

Middle Georgia........299

Southern Alabama........296

Southern New York........295

Eastern Tennessee........289

Eastern Pennsylvania........288

Maryland........279

Southern West Virginia........278

Northern Indiana........276

District of Columbia........269

Southern Georgia........269

Eastern Michigan........268

Nebraska........256

Central Illinois........250

Western Louisiana........249

Eastern Louisiana........231

Western Missouri........227

Southern Mississippi........226

Southern Ohio........224

Connecticut........217

Kansas........201

Western Michigan........198

Western New York........195

Minnesota........192

Northern Alabama........183

Northern Iowa........160

Northern Mississippi........159

Western Tennessee........149

Massachusetts........147

Eastern New York........146

Northern New York........146

Northern Georgia........142

New Jersey........136

Eastern Wisconsin........134

Southern Iowa........127

Eastern Kentucky........127

Western Pennsylvania........126

Eastern Arkansas........125

Western Wisconsin........125

Central California........124

Middle Alabama........120

Puerto Rico........116

Colorado........115

Southern Indiana........113

Eastern California........108

Western Kentucky........102

Western Oklahoma........91

Rhode Island........83

Maine........81

New Mexico........78

New Hampshire........71

Middle Louisiana........70

Nevada........67

Western Washington........60

Middle Tennessee........59

Western Arkansas........54

Northern California........54

Alaska........43

Northern Oklahoma........43

Eastern Washington........31

Delaware........30

Vermont........29

Hawaii........26

Arizona........25

Southern California........21

Oregon........17

Utah........15

Eastern Oklahoma........13

South Dakota........9

Virgin Islands........6

Wyoming........6

Montana........5

Idaho........3

North Dakota........1

Guam........0

Northern Mariana Islands........0

Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission

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