As many crack convicts are freed early, will crime rise
Of the 19,500 drug offenders eligible over the next 30 years to apply for early release, 3,417 have had their sentences reduced as of Monday.
In an effort to eliminate a legal inequity – one that has hit African-Americans especially hard – federal judges have begun reducing the sentences of thousands of crack-cocaine offenders.Skip to next paragraph
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Some police groups and prosecutors, as well as US Attorney General Michael Mukasey, assert that in trying to right a historic wrong, violent criminals are headed en masse back to the streets.
So far, indications are that this is not the case because the release process has safeguards built in. Statistics from the US Sentencing Commission, as well as interviews with federal public defenders and criminal-justice experts, indicate that federal prisoners who are to be released early are predominantly nonviolent and have good conduct records while in prison. Of the 19,500 drug offenders eligible over the next 30 years to apply for early release, 3,417 have had their sentences reduced as of Monday. Of the 1,500 inmates eligible for immediate release, dozens so far have been let go in the past month.
"There has been no release of a flood of violent criminals," says Michael Nachmanoff, federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia. "The people who are being released ... overwhelmingly had cases where there was no violence whatsoever and who were given unduly harsh sentences. And now, their sentences are being reduced by a modest amount."
Critics worry the crime rate, which has already ticked upward, will continue to increase as more prisoners apply for a sentence reduction. The Justice Department, for example, has pointed out that according to the Sentencing Commission's own analysis, nearly 80 percent of the 19,500 who would be eligible for early release had prior criminal records. Of the 1,500 eligible for immediate release, about one-quarter carried a weapon or were with someone who carried a weapon when they were arrested.
"This tells us those who are eligible for early release are very likely to commit another crime," Attorney General Mukasey told the Fraternal Order of Police earlier this year.
The sentence reductions came about because last spring the Sentencing Commission reduced the 100-to-1 crack-cocaine ratio in the guidelines. That ratio was created by a 1986 law that deemed a person convicted of possessing five grams of crack cocaine serve the same mandatory minimum sentence as someone who was caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The result: Crack-cocaine offenders serve sentences up to eight times longer than those sentenced for powder cocaine. Because crack is more often used in minority neighborhoods, African-Americans account for 80 percent of those serving time for crack offenses.
Back in 1986, the 100-to-1 ratio was thought reasonable because crack was believed to be far more addictive and prone to provoking violence. Since then, scientific studies have concluded that crack cocaine and powder cocaine affect the individual the same way and are equally harmful.
In 1995, the Sentencing Commission determined that the violence associated with crack had more to do with the way it was sold on volatile street corners, rather than any inherent difference between crack and powder cocaine. It then recommended to Congress that the mandatory minimum sentences for the two types of cocaine be equalized. But Congress rejected the recommendation. In 1997 and again in 2002, the commission recommended the disparity at least be reduced from 100-to-1 to 5-to-1. Both times Congress refused.
Last spring, the commission voted again to reduce the disparity. This time, Congress did not actively oppose the change, and it went into effect this past fall.
In December, the commission then voted to make the reduction retroactive. That made the 19,500 federal prisoners currently serving crack sentences eligible for early release. The potential average sentence reduction would be a little more than two years.
Murky case: twins ask for release
The change in the sentencing guidelines, while a legal technicality, does have a significant impact on individuals' lives. Karen Garrison, a Washington, D.C., mother, has fought for 10 years to have the guidelines changed because she feels her twin sons were unjustly convicted under the 1986 law.
Just a month after graduating from Howard University in Washington with degrees in political science, Lawrence and Lamont Garrison were convicted of dealing crack cocaine. They had been named as conspirators by a man accused of running an automobile body shop to hide a significant crack-cocaine distribution network in Maryland, according to a summary of court records. Other conspirators he named also implicated the Garrisons, saying they saw them receive large quantities of crack cocaine from the dealer.
When police searched the Garrisons' home, belongings, and bank accounts, they did not find any drugs or indications of large cash infusions. Indeed, both had significant debts from college. But police did find phone records that indicated the twins were in regular contact with the dealer at the auto body shop. The Garrisons said that was because they were fixing up an old car at the time, a hobby of theirs. They insisted they were innocent, refused to cooperate, and went to trial.
"They believed in the system. They said, 'Mommy, don't worry, when we go to court, they'll see we're not drug dealers,' " Ms. Garrison says. " 'They'll see that we were at school, that we don't do those things.' "
Nonetheless, both were convicted. Lawrence was given 15-1/2 years and Lamont 19-1/2 years, because he was also convicted of perjury, according to a summary of the Garrisons' case. That summary showed that the dealer who accused them cooperated with prosecutors and was sentenced to three years.
"If you can't find any drugs or any guns or money and they're taking the word of an informant and not really checking out his story, a lot of people who are innocent are going to end up in jail like my sons," Ms. Garrison says.
Whatever the truth of the matter, each brother has served more than 10 years now. During that time, they taught other inmates high-school equivalency and legal writing classes, and neither has had any problems, according to their mother.
Both have applied for a reduction in their sentences.
If approved by the federal judge, Lawrence could be home sometime this year. Lamont could have his sentence reduced by almost four years and be home in 2012.