By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
Six years ago, Dennis Rogers of Lee County turned himself in to begin a nine-year prison sentence.
He’d been convicted of a 2005 federal crack cocaine charge in the Northern District of Mississippi.
Four years later, when he was 57, federal policies changed, and his sentence was reduced to about seven years.
Today, Rogers and thousands of others – mostly black men – convicted on crack cocaine charges have federal judges throughout the country considering new requests to reduce their sentences.
Many, like Rogers, ask for their immediate release for “time served.” Others could see their sentences sharply reduced.
Gregory S. Park, a federal public defender in Oxford, said his office has been very busy recently.
“Our priority was to seek the immediate release for those eligible, to get their cases handled first,” Park said Wednesday.
He also said he expects more filings, perhaps more than 100 before it’s over.
Tuesday was the first day inmates locked up under old crack cocaine sentencing guidelines could get out early.
In North Mississippi, the federal court docket shows more than a dozen requests by inmates to have their time reduced.
Agencies in the region are conferring about the eligible cases and seeking to determine how many they have.
“We, along with the Federal Public Defender’s Office and others, are in the process of identifying federal inmates prosecuted in our district that may be eligible for a sentence reduction pursuant to the Fair Sentencing Act,” said William “Chad” Lamar, chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s Criminal Division in Oxford.
Park confirmed the joint effort and said none of the parties knows yet how many inmates may be affected.
All this change comes from Congress’ vote last year to ease federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. The measure is called the Fair Sentencing Act.
Although the act affects all future crack cocaine convictions, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to make the new guidelines retroactive. It does not affect people sentenced under state drug laws.
It potentially changed punishments set back in the 1980s, when a crack epidemic raged across the U.S., and Congress reacted by setting crack cocaine penalties 100 times more severe than penalties for cocaine in its powder form.
“Many of the misconceptions about crack, compared to powder, were shown to be inaccurate,” Park said.
Tupelo attorney Rob Laher, who’s defended clients on cocaine charges, said the initial, harsher sentences came from a belief that crack cocaine was more addictive and fueled violence.
Because crack was cheaper and more pervasive in minority neighborhoods, the vast majority of convictions involved African-Americans. Many were locked up for decades.
“The law wasn’t aimed at minorities, but ultimately it turned out most of the defendants were black or Hispanic,” Laher noted.
Kevin Dion Wiley from Benton County is another one – convicted in January 1995 on two counts of possession with intent to sell more than 50 grams of crack cocaine.
First, he was sentenced to 27 years in prison, then the 2007 sentencing amendment allowed the court to drop his time to 211/2 years.
Under the new guidelines, he could be released immediately.
But Park notes, regardless of filing the necessary paperwork and agreements between the various agencies, it’s still up to a federal judge to approve the requests.
In some instances, hearings may be needed to present pertinent information.
The procedure also means that all those eligible for “time served” release won’t be getting out at the same time.
Authorities say as many as 12,000 people are eligible to ask for reduced prison time.
In Dennis Rogers’ Nov. 1 sentence reduction motion, Park notes that under the new guidelines Rogers is eligible for a sentence range of 51-63 months – well below the six years he’s already served.
Park said that after his office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Probation Service agree on who else is eligible, the inmates will be informed that they may request the change.
“It’s rare to see anybody not want early release,” he added.