New federal sentencing guidelines designed to end the disparity between prison sentences for powder and crack cocaine dealers went into effect a month ago, and so far more than 3,000 inmates have had their prison terms reduced, reports the Los Angeles Times. Dozens have been released but many others who should have been released have not. Critics blame bureaucratic delays as well as opposition from the Justice Department. In North Carolina, with the nation’s fifth largest population of crack offenders eligible for early release, four inmates have been freed out of some three dozen who lawyers say should have been released, in some cases, years ago.
Judges there did not approve a plan for processing requests for sentence reductions until five days before the new rules were to go into effect. Courts in parts of Texas and south Florida also appear to be lagging. The process seems to be working best in jurisdictions where prosecutors, judges and probation officers were working weeks and in some cases months in advance of the effective date to mitigate delays. Lee Lawless, a federal public defender in St. Louis, said his office had a standing agreement with the U.S. attorney that unless an inmate had posed a clear public safety threat or had received an unusually lenient sentence, the government would not stand in the way of the reductions. Parks Small, a federal public defender in Columbia, S.C., said his office had been engaged in “triage” for months to make sure prisoners eligible for immediate release received attention. About 80 sentence-reduction orders were signed the first week of March. Dozens of other inmates have been granted sentence reductions in West Virginia, Florida and Ohio, among other states.