Inmates Eligible for Early Release Frustrated by Delays

By: Gerri L. Elder

Under new federal sentencing guidelines that were approved in 2007, convicted crack cocaine offenders are to be sentenced under more lenient guidelines, resulting in shorter prison sentences. The new federal guidelines were specifically designed to level the playing field between the sentences for powder and crack cocaine dealers and to remove any possibility of racial injustices in sentencing.

Approximately 90 percent of defendants who are arrested and stand trial for crack cocaine offenses in federal courts are African American. In the past, the law has punished crack cocaine dealers much more harshly than dealers of powder cocaine.

In December 2007, against the wishes of the Justice Department, The United States Sentencing Commission decided that the new federal sentencing guidelines should be applied retroactively. This decision should have effectively reduced the sentences of approximately 19,500 crack cocaine offenders who are in prison, having been sentenced under the previously stricter guidelines.

On March 3, the new federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders took effect. However, The Los Angeles Times reports that the process of applying the retroactive guidelines and releasing the crack cocaine offenders who have already completed their sentences as indicated by the new federal guidelines is moving slowly.

Criminal defense attorneys who are involved in having inmates sentences reduced and having those who should be released actually released say that opposition from the Justice Department and bureaucratic delays are hindering the process.

In some states, the problem is that the courts have failed to prepare to process all of the requests for sentence reductions under the new federal guidelines. Nationwide, only slightly more than 3,000 of the eligible 19,500 sentences have been modified. Not all inmates are eligible for release, even with the reduced sentencing guidelines. However, criminal defense attorneys say that some inmates could have been released years ago had the new sentencing guidelines come sooner, yet they are still in prison waiting for their day in court so that the sentence reductions to be applied.

In Dallas, Texas one judge has further frustrated the process by refusing to allow federal public defenders to represent the crack offenders in his court. The judge has said that the crack offenders no longer have right to counsel. This judge’s decision has left it up to the inmates to file their own jailhouse petitions to try to get early release under the new federal sentencing guidelines.

The new federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine offenders are complex. Many inmates have trouble completing the required paperwork correctly and many make errors that could further delay their freedom. In response to the judge’s ruling, one federal public defender decided to help the inmates in the only way that he could. Richard Anderson, a federal public defender in Dallas, has sent out a mass mailing to several hundred eligible inmates to help them prepare their cases.

Some judges and federal prosecutors are moving slowly on the crack cocaine offender cases in order to carefully review each one. The new sentencing guidelines do not automatically apply to all crack cocaine offenders. Offenders who have a violent criminal history or whose crimes indicate that they may pose a threat to the community may be denied reduced sentencing and early release.