As federal courts take on the unprecedented task of deciding whether thousands of prisoners should receive lower sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine, some judges are telling poor convicts that they won’t get lawyers to help them argue for leniency, say McClatchy Newspapers. Some prisoners are being left to argue on their own behalf against skilled prosecutors in cases that have already been labeled unjust. About 20,000 prisoners eligible for lower sentences must ask a court to reconsider their cases. Many have said they’re too poor to hire lawyers to ask for the lower sentences, and judges have appointed federal defenders to represent them at taxpayers’ expense.
Other judges have declined to appoint attorneys, saying they aren’t needed for what should be a straightforward sentencing matter nor are they required under the Constitution. Judges have the sole authority to appoint such attorneys. Meanwhile, crack cocaine sentences are still as much as five times longer on average than powder cocaine sentences, even with the new guidelines. Eyvonne Garrett, a Texas prisoner, was denied an attorney and a lower sentence. Since she went to prison in 2003, she’s participated in drug rehabilitation and in a program in which she speaks to troubled young women. In a 24-page legal brief opposing her request, federal prosecutors argued that she’d already received a lower sentence and didn’t deserve any more time off. “I was shocked,” said Garrett, 40. said. “I thought I had done everything I was supposed to do.”