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Confusion arises over crack cases

Times Staff Writer

In recent days, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey has voiced opposition to the early release of hundreds of federal inmates convicted of dealing crack cocaine, saying the move would unleash a potential crime wave in communities across the country. He reiterated his concern Thursday at a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee.

But some U.S. attorney offices around the country may not be getting the message.

In at least three cases, federal prosecutors have supported efforts to win inmates reduced sentences. Two of the cases are in the Portland, Ore., area, where one inmate is thought to have been released. A third defendant, jailed in Massachusetts, could be released this summer.

The disconnect between Justice Department policy and how new sentencing guidelines are being applied in some cases suggests the issue may be more complex than the attorney general has indicated.

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Under rules approved in December, as many as 19,500 federal inmates may qualify for reduced sentences they received for dealing crack cocaine.

The move by the U.S. Sentencing Commission culminated a two-decade debate about the wisdom of punishing crack dealers more severely than those involved with powder cocaine. The debate was fueled by concerns that crack laws were unfairly affecting African Americans, who constitute 9 out of 10 crack defendants.

Mukasey has focused on the 1,600 inmates who officials estimate could be eligible for release when the rules go into effect March 3. He has called the idea especially ill-advised at a time when violent crime is rising in some U.S. cities.

“Many of these offenders are among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system,” Mukasey said Thursday. Their release, he said, would produce “tragic but predictable results.” He has also expressed concern that many will not have received the job training or drug treatment they need to stay out of trouble.

Mukasey has called on Congress to intervene. Justice Department officials have indicated they would like to limit the reduced sentences to first-time, nonviolent offenders, or to those with little or no history of crime.

Peter A. Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, said Thursday that there should be no confusion about where the department stands. “The department’s policy on retroactivity is laid out in the attorney general’s statement before Congress,” he said.

But even some Justice Department officials see little chance that the Democratic Congress would approve such legislation. Opponents say the move would be unfair to defendants who have already served long sentences.

Justice Department officials signaled at a conference on the new guidelines last month that they would do their part to implement the rules fairly -- a view that appears to contrast with the hard line that Mukasey has recently adopted.

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Some U.S. attorneys outside the Beltway are already helping implement the rules.

In Portland, the U.S. attorney’s office supported reduced sentences for defendants in two cases, even before the guidelines were set to go into effect.

Kent Robinson, first assistant U.S. attorney in Portland, said the office backed the early release in one case because the defendant was already living in a halfway house.

It was the second time the government had given a break to Felton Howard Jr., the defendant in the case, according to court records. Howard faced a mandatory five years in prison when he was first sentenced in 2006, but served just 18 months because he had cooperated with federal authorities.

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The other Oregon defendant, Octabian Jamar Riley, was sent to prison in 2004 for selling crack and carrying a .45-caliber handgun.

On the surface, he seemed to be just the sort of armed criminal that Mukasey was concerned about. But Riley won’t be hitting the streets any time soon. Robinson said federal officials had turned over Riley to the state of Oregon to face separate charges.

Robinson said that it was an oversight to process the claims before March 3, and that he was unaware at the time that the Justice Department had a policy against it. “We mistakenly let those slip through before the national policy to oppose release [before March 3] was clear to us,” he said.

“Both represented rather extraordinary circumstances,” he added. He said the office was now opposing any early release requests until at least March 3.

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On Wednesday, a federal judge in Boston shaved 15 months off the sentence of another convicted crack dealer, court records show.

The defendant, Deborah Woodard, had originally been convicted of possessing more than 50 grams of crack with intent to distribute, and was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison.

The decision by U.S. District Judge William G. Young to trim her sentence followed a request last month by Woodard’s public defender.

After receiving the request, Young asked the government for its view on giving Woodard a break. The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston responded by joining in the request, court records show.

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“My understanding is that the attorney general’s concerns became known after the motion was filed, and our response was due,” said Christina Dilorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Boston.

Woodard could be eligible for release in June.

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rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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