Friday, July 1, 2011

Thousands of Crack Offenders Could Get Early Prison Release

MOBILE, Ala.) - This would be Dorothy Gaines 16th year behind bars after being convicted on crack cocaine charges.  But President Bill Clinton granted her clemency and she got out after serving just six years. 

"I thank God every day for my freedom," she says.  Gaines sees that day as a huge victory, and Thursday as another one for thousands more.

The United States Sentencing Commission voted unanimously Thursday to allow reduced sentences for 12,000 more federal prisoners convicted for crack related crimes.  Back in 2010, Congress passed a law that reduced sentences for newly convicted drug offenders.  But now, the Commission decided that prisoners locked up before that 2010 law went into effect should also benefit. 

Their goal was to fix the sentencing disparity between people convicted of crack cocaine possession and those found with powder cocaine.  In the past, a person with five grams of crack racked up the same prison time as someone with 500 grams of powder cocaine. 

"We're not talking about you shouldn't go to prison," says Gaines.  "It's about the time that you give a person for the crime they commit."

Gaines says the old rules were unfair and discriminatory.  Advocates say black offenders received longer sentences because crack is more common in black neighborhoods, while powdered cocaine was more often found in white areas.

Not everyone is celebrating the new rule.

"It's just very scary to me to think that they're going to put people like that back on the streets," says Mobile resident Marisa Scott.  Instead of lowering the sentences of crack cocaine prisoners, Scott wants powder cocaine offenders' sentences increased to match. "We already don't have the manpower to get the criminals that are out here and that's just gonna make it even harder," she says.

Mobile County sheriff Sam Cochran says there's no need to panic. 

"Twelve thousand sounds like a big number, but nationally I don't think it will impact us that greatly here in the southern part of Alabama," he says. 

But the sheriff admits some problem could come with putting those prisoner back on the streets.  "It's been my experience that those that have violated in the past are more apt to violate in the future," Cochran says.  "Criminals are very repetitive."

Gaines says not everyone who gets out early will commit more crimes, and she says she's an example of how second chances work.

The Commission's decision is final, unless Congress decides by the end of October to strike it down.

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