WASHINGTON – Nearly 900 federal inmates in Kentucky and Ohio convicted of dealing crack cocaine are now eligible for shortened sentences,and another 70 qualify for immediate release.
After a six-month review,the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to lower the recommended sentences for crack cocaine dealers and also voted unanimously to apply the new guidelines retroactively.
The commission's decision followed Monday's Supreme Court decision granting judges leeway in determining sentences in crack and powdered cocaine cases.
The commission's decision could affect roughly 19,000 prisoners nationwide,about 10 percent of those incarcerated in the federal prison system.
About 2,500 of those prisoners who have already served the bulk of their sentences could be released as early as March. The others can apply for reduced sentences starting then but would still have time to serve.
Ohio and Kentucky have much lower numbers than states such as Virginia and Florida,which together account for roughly 11 percent of crack-cocaine crimes. Ohio has 620 eligible inmates and Kentucky has 229.
The change is “intended as a step toward reducing some of the unwarranted disparity,” according to a statement released by the commission,that was created in 1985 when national sentencing policy was developed for the federal courts.
And while the Justice Department warned against releasing thousands of potentially violent offenders,a spokesman for the commission said that only a fraction of inmates could leave any time soon. The majority of the 19,000 offenders will be released over the next 30 years,although more than half – about 11,000 – could be freed in the next five years.
Steve Nolder,federal public defender for the Southern District of Ohio,said that officials would meet before the new guidelines take effect in March to devise an effective way to file for shorter sentencing to avoid a “tidal wave effect.”
“We don't want to overwhelm the courts,” Nolder said.
His district – representing Cincinnati,Dayton and Columbus – has 224 inmates eligible under the new guidelines. But only 13 of those prisoners could be released immediately when the guidelines take effect March 3.
The Northern District of Ohio had the 12th highest number of eligible inmates nationally,396,with 48 eligible for immediate release. Both Kentucky federal judicial districts were in the bottom half.
Eastern Kentucky,which includes Northern Kentucky,had 127 eligible prisoners,17 of who qualify for immediate release.
Western Kentucky reported 102,with three prisoners eligible for release in March,according to the Sentencing Commission.
“The numbers do not reflect the specific case facts for the individual defendants eligible for reduced sentences and thus early release,” said David Huber,U.S. Attorney for Western District of Kentucky,and Amul Thapar,U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky,in a joint statement.
“Drug offenders as a group are among the most violent and dangerous offenders sentenced by the Kentucky federal courts,” the statement said.
Spokesmen for Kentucky Attorney General Greg Stumbo and Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann would not comment on the new guidelines or the possibility of early release for inmates because it was a federal decision. Neither of the U.S. attorneys in Ohio returned calls seeking comment.
Laws adopted during the crack boom in the late 1980s stipulated that even first-time offenders convicted of dealing 5 grams of crack cocaine or more earned an automatic five-year sentence. A defendant would have had to possess 500 grams of cocaine to merit a comparable sentence. Crack was considered more addictive and associated with more violent crime.
But groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union saw what they said was racially motivated legislation lead to greater disparities and lengthier sentencing for minorities. Even now,86 percent of eligible prisoners are black,and 8 percent are Hispanic. The commission's new guidelines try to lessen those distinctions.
“It's the right thing to do,” said Jeff Gamso,Ohio ACLU legal director. “The distinction between crack and powder cocaine was always a false distinction.”
If an Ohio Senate bill passes,however,the new guidelines might not matter. A measure sponsored by state Sen. Ray. Miller,D-Columbus,would erase sentencing differences between crack and powder cocaine cases,though it would use existing minimums for crack cases to decide sentencing.
“We're moving in the opposite direction,” said Amy Borror,public information officer for the Ohio Public Defender's office.