Crack sentencing law amended, but do convicts' records reflect their crimes?
Dwuan Dent and Antwan Askia were on opposite sides of an East Baltimore drug turf war in the 1990s that killed at least four people, according to federal prosecutors who charged Dent with murder and conspiracy and Askia with various drug counts.
Both were convicted only of drug distribution charges, but because of tough-on-crime guidelines that imposed greater penalties for crack than powder cocaine, Dent was sentenced to more than 17 years in prison and Askia to 20.
Now Dent and Askia are among scores of prisoners across the country who are being released early — the beneficiaries of efforts to change those sentencing guidelines that critics say disproportionately affected low-income people and minorities who faced longer prison terms for crack-cocaine charges. Some authorities, however, warn that potentially dangerous criminals with records of violence also could be released.
Since the 1980s, possession of one gram of crack carried the same penalty as 100 grams of powder cocaine. The bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously last year to narrow the gap between the guidelines that applied to each drug, and the change is being applied retroactively.
An estimated 12,000 prisoners across the country are eligible for release as the lighter sentencing guidelines are applied to their cases. Federal prosecutors and public defenders in Maryland are reviewing some 900 cases, so far recommending the release of 24 inmates; federal judges have signed off on those releases. Officials say another two dozen are likely to be released before the end of the year, and a few more after that.
While only those convicted of drug offenses — and no other charges — are eligible for review, Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein said prosecutors in some cases didn't pursue convictions on harder-to-prove allegations of violence because the drug charges carried such heavy sentences. He declined to comment on specific cases.
"In some cases, their record may not reflect the violent crimes in which they were engaged," Rosenstein said. "When prosecutors had these crack penalties, they used those to incarcerate people for lengthy periods of time without proving the violence. It's much more complicated to prove that somebody's involved in shootings and murder."
But Sapna Mirchandani, a federal public defender in Maryland who is leading an effort to identify inmates who should be released, took exception to that assessment.
"The fact that they were able to use the amount of crack in their possession to trump up the sentence shows how the crack law was being used to imprison people for large chunks of time with little in the way of investigation and proof," she said.
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