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.
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The Justice Department urged Congress to again override the Sentencing Commission. It warned that retroactivity would add to an increase in crime.Skip to next paragraph
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But Congress allowed the commission's decision to stand. In part, that's because a commission analysis of federal crack-cocaine offenders also determined that 90 percent of their cases did not involve violence. Of those 1,500 who would be available for immediate release, the commission said, only 1 percent were deemed "career criminals" and 6 percent "supervisors" of drug rings.
In addition, the commission also required that inmates eligible for a reduced sentence apply to a federal judge. And the US attorney in every district can oppose any sentence reduction if he or she deems the inmate is too dangerous for early release.
"It seems like Mukasey is stoking the flames of fear, and I don't understand why," says Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums, which advocates sentencing reform. "All of these people are only eligible for release. They're not guaranteed release. It's up to Mukasey's US attorneys to argue against their release, if they think they're going to go out and wreak havoc."
Mukasey's office says he stands by his earlier comments.
But many criminal-justice experts say the reduction in the disparity is long overdue.
"I would agree, like most people, that the original legislation that created the disparate sentences for crack versus powder was ill conceived," says James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. "And therefore changes now to remedy mistakes of the past make sense."
The revised guidelines have been structured well, criminal-justice experts say, in that the decision about reducing an inmate's sentence rests with a federal judge.
"In the cases where the retroactive application of the guideline is pretty clear cut, we are getting agreement from the US attorney's office," says Miriam Conrad, federal public defender for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. "There are some cases in which the legal issues are somewhat more complex, and those are ones that it may take a little bit longer to sort out."
Still, some law-enforcement officials remain skeptical. The Fraternal Order of Police credits the tough mandatory minimum sentences with helping to bring about the reduction in crime in the 1990s. If crack-cocaine disparity is unfair, the organization says, then it would be better to increase the penalties for powder cocaine to the level of crack sentences.
"We believe that letting these people out, their presence on the street, will further harden that trend upward in the crime rate," says James Pasco, executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police.
Professor Fox agrees that there is concern about releasing a large number of crack-cocaine offenders, particularly because many of those eligible for early release now are from a generation that struggled with high levels of criminality in the '80s and early '90s. But they all will be released eventually, he notes.
"Under the logic that we shouldn't let them out because they may reoffend, well, that's true today, may be true tomorrow, and a decade from now," he says. "We have not done much in the meantime to ensure there's positive change when people are in prison."
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.