The federal probation office has determined that 256 crack-cocaine dealers in the Southern District of Ohio are probably eligible for early release from prison under a change in federal sentencing guidelines.
The court district covers the southern half of Ohio, including Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati.
"That number is pretty close to being reliable. … We looked at well over 3,000 cases," said Pat Crowley, chief U.S. probation officer for the district.
The federal public defender's office had estimated that 439 inmates might be eligible.
Federal prosecutors plan to object to early release in about 80 cases but agree with the probation office's assessment of the others, said William Hunt, first assistant U.S. attorney for the southern district.
Federal judges ultimately will rule on whether a prisoner is released; in some cases, they already have.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission enacted retroactive sentencing guidelines in 2007 after years of outcries about a 100-to-1 sentencing disparity between penalties for crack and powder cocaine.
Before the changes, possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine could merit the same 20-year federal prison sentence given for 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The guideline changes reduced the disparity and put punishment on a sliding scale based on a criminal's history and the amount of drugs involved, Hunt said.
The three agencies -- probation, public defender and prosecutor -- together reviewed 464 inmate files; in 80 percent of the cases, they agreed on whether an inmate was eligible and, if so, for how much of a reduction, Crowley said.
That bodes well for the inmates when they go before judges, said Steven Nolder, federal public defender for the southern district.
The average sentence reduction is about 28 months, "which is right on target with the national average," Nolder said.
Hunt said the U.S. Department of Justice was not in favor of the guideline changes. But now that they are in place, he said, the department is objecting to early release for only the worst offenders.
"I think there is a public perception that the federal government has gone and charged users … and they were treated unfairly," he said. "In our district, we did not prosecute users. We prosecuted people who were making a living off crack cocaine."
By Jodi Andes
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Sunday, November 16, 2008 3:46 AM