In 1993, Anthea Harris of Florida watched as her husband exchanged 550 rocks of crack cocaine for $5,500 in cash. A federal judge sentenced Harris to 15 years and eight months in prison for conspiring to distribute crack cocaine, says the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. To civil rights activists, defense lawyers and many judges, cases like Harris’ show how federal sentencing laws lead to excessive prison terms for many nonviolent, first-time criminals and results in longer sentences for blacks – the majority of crack cocaine defendants.
Under new federal rules lowering tough penalties for crimes involving crack by an average of 23 months, South Florida judges have already trimmed the prison terms of more than 100 drug offenders, including Harris, released after almost 11 years. Law enforcement officials fear the rule change could put violent criminals back on the streets. In August, five months after a man won such an early release, authorities in St. Johns County, Fl., arrested him on charges of raping a 13-year-old girl. South Florida federal judges have denied sentence reductions at a rate greater than the national average, turning away almost half the prisoners asking for early release since the change took effect in March. Nationwide, judges approved 76 percent of requests from crack offenders, compared with South Florida’s approval rate of 54 percent.