From the Charleston Daily Mail:
Courts begin freeing inmates under new sentencing rules
by The Associated Press
Federal courts in West Virginia have started releasing some inmates who are eligible for reduced sentences under new guidelines for crack cocaine convictions.
At least 28 inmates have been freed since the new sentencing guidelines went into effect March 3.
“I think it’s running more smoothly than anybody initially thought it was going to,” said federal Public Defender Mary Lou Newberger in Charleston. “The most important thing is, it’s not that everybody is being (released) at one time. There are people who are having their sentences reduced who won’t get out until next year or later. It’s a rolling process.”
The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously in December to ease its sentencing guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. For example, a defendant caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine previously faced the same penalty — a mandatory five-year prison sentence — as one caught with 5 grams of crack cocaine.
In West Virginia, about 490 inmates in the southern district and 617 inmates in the northern district are eligible for reduced sentences, court officials said.
U.S. Attorney Sharon Potter said 28 inmates in the northern district were freed on March 3.
But shorter sentences are not automatic for every inmate who seeks one, Potter said.
“For example, if other drugs were involved in a conviction or if a firearm was involved, this reduction may not impact the original sentence whatsoever,” Potter said “Further, if a defendant was found to be a career offender, meaning his or her criminal history warranted a higher guideline sentence, this reduction would have no impact on the case.”
Potter said a defendant’s conduct while in prison also is a factor that is considered.
In the southern district, the judges issued an order Feb. 6 establishing a standard procedure for addressing such cases. Each eligible inmate’s case is reviewed by probation officers, federal prosecutors and a judge before a sentence is reduced.
Chief U.S. District Judge Joseph R. Goodwin said the procedure includes safeguards to ensure that an inmate who poses an immediate threat is not released.
“It would be naive to assume that all people getting out of prison will never again commit a crime,” he said. “But we have to keep in mind that all of these people will get out at the end of their sentences. The determination we’re making here is simply one which we hope is informed as to whether their sentence should conform to others eligible for this reduction.”