What's most striking to me about the story are the relatively small numbers of people involved. The vast majority of Texas' thousands of penny-ante drug charges every year were never going through the federal system in the first place, though the results are similarly racially skewed.
Since last week, more than 250 inmates in the Dallas-Fort Worth area have filed requests for shorter sentences, according to federal probation officials.
The officials didn't know how many inmates have been released, but about 80 have been freed in the eastern district of Texas.
Around the country, about 800 inmates have been released out of the estimated 20,000 convicted of crack cocaine offenses and eligible for lighter prison terms under the new federal guidelines.
The change in guidelines stemmed from a December decision by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to reduce the disparity between those convicted of crack cocaine, mostly black men who got long sentences, and those convicted of crimes involving powdered cocaine, who are often white and more affluent and received shorter terms.
Gordon Okada, the chief probation officer for the northern district of Texas, told a newspaper that he expects more inmates to be released as the Bureau of Prisons processes a backlog of requests.
Richard Roper, the U.S. attorney for the northern district in Dallas, said he will try to block reduced sentences for inmates he believes are dangerous. He suggested that he won't oppose release for drug addicts but would for those convicted of being "substantial narcotics traffickers."
Roper said all the inmates getting out will be supervised and could be returned to prison if they violate the conditions of their release.
Officials in the eastern district of Texas, which stretches from Plano to the Louisiana line, have received 300 requests out of 500 inmates eligible for reduced sentences, said Arnold Spencer, an assistant U.S. attorney in Tyler.
Spencer said 80 have been released and another 80 are expected to be freed in the next week or two.
In Texas state courts, where there's no disparity for crack but incredibly long sentences for drug crimes generally, penalties may be longer on these types of charges, even, than under federal sentencing guidelines. Possession of two hundred grams or more of any controlled substance (except marijuana) can get you a first degree felony sentence up to 99 years or life. More commonly, though, prosecutors seek to "enhance" lower-level possession to the higher penalty range (e.g., under the "habitual offender" provision, Texas' version of a "3 strikes" law) for much smaller amounts of drugs.
Doc Berman over at Sentencing Law & Policy is the go-to source on this topic; his extensive recent coverage is linked at the end of this post.