Leader Blues

Monday, December 17, 2007

TOP STORY >>Sentences unlikely to affect area

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

Changes this week in federal sentencing guidelines aimed at retroactively reducing crack cocaine sentences to correspond with powder cocaine sentences and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming greater sentencing latitude by federal judges will have little if any effect on judges and inmates in Arkansas, sources here say.

Advocates have long held that harsher sentences for crack cocaine—largely a choice of drugs by blacks and the underclass—than for powder cocaine, often perceived as a drug of choice by rich, famous and middle-class whites, was a form of racism.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission’s decision in November reduced crack sentences to correspond with powder cocaine sentences, and the commission this week made the decision retroactive, meaning that federal prisoners could petition for sentence reduction.

The Washington Post reports that about 3,800 inmates nationally would be eligible to apply for reduced sentences next year.
A commissioner is quoted as saying the average sentence could be reduced by about 27 months.

But changes in both the sentencing guidelines and in the latitude judges have in following or not following those guidelines won’t affect local courts or inmates in local jails and prisons.

There reportedly are 19,000 inmates nationally who might be eligible for earlier release, according to published reports. Pulaski County Prosecutor Larry Jegley said he had heard that only about 180 Arkansans doing federal time could be eligible for earlier release.

He said as long as they weren’t using guns, it shouldn’t create much of a problem.

“Coke is coke in Arkansas sentencing,” Jegley said.

Lonoke County Prosecutor Lona McCastlain agreed with Jegley’s assessment.

“Arkansas doesn’t distinguish between the two,” said McCastlain. And as far as sentencing guidelines, judges don’t really determine sentences in Arkansas, juries do, she said.

“I don’t think it will have a great effect on us,” said Pulaski County Sheriff’s Office spokesman John Rehrauer. He said that at most, a few federal prisoners could qualify for release earlier and be back on the streets.

The changes have no effect at all upon inmates in the state Correction Department, according to Dina Tyler, spokesman.