Thursday, March 20, 2008

First Texans released thanks to retroactive reduction of federal crack cocaine penalites

Since the Rothgery case has me thinking about the federal courts this week - not my usual terrain, to be sure - I was pleased to notice an AP article localizing a federal story for Texas ("Inmates seeking shorter sentences on crack cocaine crime," March 16), via Crime and Consequences, detailing the results of retroactive changes in federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine:

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.

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.

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.


doc's honeee said...

The issue of sentencing guidelines is almost endless. Until our society identifies people with drug/alcohol dependencies as people with a physical disease, in need of mental health services, we will continue to fill jails with them. They will continue to spiral out control and cost the very society that shuns them a lot of money. There are alternatives and sentencing guidelines across the boards need to be rewritten to reflect a solution to the penal society that is emerging. We can't afford to do anything else.

Anonymous said...

doc honeee, you just wrote on the exact same subject I have been preaching about for some time now. Those who use drugs are in need of mental health care services and not insults and more abuse.

I am a medical person and I realize a mental disease is a physical disease and the person who uses drugs is in dire need of medical care, usually for depression and anxiety that accompanies depression.

The alternatives and sentencing guidelines across the whole judicial system need to be re-written and the Judges need to learn there is a need not being met and to just lock someone up does nothing to solve the problem

That same person comes sicker than they were when they were sent to prison, there is no help for them in prison, no rehab, medical care is non-existent and that includes mental health care, which is the same as physical health care. Help those who need help and stop sending them back to prison. Texas can no longer afford this.

Treatment for drug abuse is 6-9 months and then there is no guarantee sometimes a longer time span is needed to help this person.

Thank you for saying the same things I have been saying over and over.

Anonymous said...

In my neck of the woods,10% of the drug seizure forefeiture money would go a very long way toward treatment. It seems like everytime I bring this up I get a blank look followed by a very cold shoulder. Is anybody asking for or receiving these funds?
Texas Statute Article 59.06-(3) of Subsection (c) of this article that the
funds described by those subdivisions be used only for the official
purposes of the attorney representing the state or for law
enforcement purposes, on agreement between the attorney
representing the state or the head of a law enforcement agency and
the governing body of a political subdivision, the attorney
representing the state or the head of the law enforcement agency
shall comply with the request of the governing body to deposit not
more than a total of 10 percent of the gross amount credited to the
attorney's or agency's fund into the treasury of the political
subdivision. The governing body of the political subdivision
shall, by ordinance, order, or resolution, use funds received under
this subsection for:
(1) nonprofit programs for the prevention of drug abuse;
(2) nonprofit chemical dependency treatment facilities
licensed under Chapter 464, Health and Safety Code;
(3) nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation or prevention
programs administered or staffed by professionals designated as
qualified and credentialed by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and
Drug Abuse; Does anybody know?