Changed crack sentencing rules leave a justice system in flux

Feds have spent months combing through files of inmates who may qualify for release.

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Katherine Menendez, an assistant federal public defender, sat amid files of inmates who might get early releases on crack convictions.

Photo: Jerry Holt, Star Tribune

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Carlos Lamont Cleveland, 39, was jailed in 1995 on charges that he was the "right-hand man to the leader of a large and violent drug-trafficking organization" that distributed crack cocaine in Minnesota.

But his sister stood by him as he kept challenging his 300-month sentence. This week, she got the news from her brother she had been waiting for: Cleveland would be returning home on Friday.

New sentencing rules that took effect on Tuesday made Cleveland one of more than 1,800 prisoners eligible for release right away, federal officials said. Creature comforts of a full-size bed, a freshly painted room and a bouquet of welcome-home balloons will await him in his hometown of Detroit.

"We're definitely going to have a dinner and invite people over," Stella Marie Cleveland said.

Nationwide, more than 500 people were released from custody on Tuesday, the Federal Bureau of Prisons said. In Minnesota, the change in the guidelines will mean an early release for 100 to 150 inmates who were convicted of crack cocaine crimes.

The change is eventually expected to benefit 12,000 U.S. inmates, reducing sentences by an average of three years.

Stella Cleveland said her family paid close attention to changing laws that narrowed the gap between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The federal sentencing guidelines originally equated one gram of crack with 100 grams of powder cocaine. Because crack was more popular in poor and inner-city neighborhoods, the guidelines had the effect of generating disproportionately harsher sentences for African-Americans.

"I still don't get it," Stella said. "Drugs are drugs, right?"

Not according to Congress and the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Commission. After two revisions, the first in 2007 and the second one now, crack still has 18 times the leverage of powder cocaine when it comes to sentencing.

"So for every gram of crack you have, that's basically 18 times more serious than a gram of powder cocaine," said Katherian Roe, federal public defender in Minnesota. "It was a political compromise. They couldn't get close to 1:1 or even 10:1," she said.

For the past few months, U.S. probation officers, federal defenders and federal prosecutors in Minnesota have been combing through hundreds of court files in an effort to find inmates who may be eligible for release under the new retroactive sentencing rules.

It's up to the U.S. Probation Office to determine the sentencing calculations. Darren Kerns, a supervisory probation officer in Minneapolis, said his office has spent months reviewing about 500 cocaine cases going back to 1987, when the guidelines took effect. There were about 350 that involved crack cocaine in which offenders are still imprisoned. But not everyone will be eligible for early release.

The Probation Office notifies the U.S. attorney's office and the federal defender's office of their findings on each case. Both sides have an opportunity to object. About 90 percent of the time, they agreed with the Probation Office.

Poring over 'crack room' files

Hundreds of files fill a space in the federal public defender's office that they jokingly call the "crack room," Roe said. At least two lawyers review each file. "The last thing we want to do is miss somebody," she said.

So far, they've found 21 candidates for "immediate release," Roe said. But the number is still in flux. The U.S. attorney's office said it has identified 28 potential candidates for immediate release; the Probation Office said it might be somewhat fewer than that.

So far, orders have been signed for just four that reduced their sentences to time served. In addition to Cleveland, who got a 29-month reduction, they include Paris Lamar Wilson, sentenced in 1997 on charges of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine, possession and use of a firearm related to drug trafficking; Bobby Woods, sentenced in 2001 on charges of conspiracy and possession of cocaine base, and Steven Mitchell Gant, who pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of conspiracy and possession of cocaine base, cocaine and ecstasy.

Time to notify victims

The orders give the Bureau of Prisons 10 days to release the inmates. Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Minnesota, said under the law, the bureau gets time to notify victims in some cases or even local law enforcement.

The offenders will remain subject to post-prison "supervised release" even if, in effect, they served excess time under the new guidelines.

Some of the inmates affected by the changes have been imprisoned long after the time they would've been released had the new rules been in place when they were originally sentenced, Roe said. Two are already under electronic monitoring in their homes. Others are in half-way houses because they were already transitioning back into society as they neared the end of their original sentence.

The sentencing guidelines consist of a mathematical formula for determining an offender's punishment. It creates a matrix based on a defendant's criminal history and the nature of the crime. The guidelines were altered in 2007 in an effort to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. That revision affected about 150 inmates convicted in Minnesota. But it didn't have dramatic effects for those with longer sentences, Roe said.

The current revision is far more complex. It can result in reductions ranging from zero to even six levels of severity, she explained. "We've seen one person with a 2015 release date. He'll be eligible for release immediately," she said.

Chief U.S. Probation Officer Kevin Lowry said some inmates who were released early after the first guidelines change experienced "a little bit of culture shock" at their sudden release. "Some did indicate that they had anxiety about being back in the community sooner than they expected," he said.

Kerns said probation officers worked hard then and are working hard now to connect the outgoing offenders with social services to ensure they have a place to stay, as well as educational and employment opportunities. "That's what we'll continue to focus on, successful re-entry into the community and helping these folks turn back into successful, law abiding lifestyles," he said.

dbrowning@startribune.com • 612-673-4493 plouwagie@startribune.com • 612-673-7102

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