Mukasey sees risk in early release

Times Staff Writer

Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey on Thursday attacked plans to roll back the sentences of thousands of federal prisoners convicted under harsh crack cocaine laws, saying that the move could return many violent offenders to the streets and increase the crime problems of U.S. cities.

Mukasey told the U.S. Conference of Mayors that about 1,600 convicted criminals -- “many of them violent gang members” -- could be released as early as March under a decision by the U.S. commission that sets sentencing guidelines for federal crimes.

“Before we take that step, we need to think long and hard about whether that’s the best way to go about this -- whether it best serves the interests of justice and public safety,” Mukasey said. “A sudden influx of criminals from federal prison into your communities could lead to a surge in new victims with a tragic but predictable result.”


The remarks, while consistent with previous Justice Department pronouncements on the issue, represented the most pointed criticism to date from Mukasey and showed him taking an aggressive stance as the Bush administration’s chief crime fighter.

He also announced to the mayors that the administration would be seeking $200 million in new anti-violence funds for the fiscal year that will start in October.

After years of debate about the fairness and efficacy of lengthy sentences for people caught dealing crack cocaine, the U.S. Sentencing Commission approved guidelines last month that made roughly 19,500 federal prisoners convicted of crack-related crimes -- 85% of whom are African American -- eligible for sentence reductions.

About 2,500 of the eligible inmates could be released in the year after March 3, when inmates are allowed to start applying for reductions, which are estimated to average 27 months.

The others will still have time to serve -- in some cases a decade or more -- even if they qualify for a break, because their original sentences were so long.

The bleak assessment offered by Mukasey was challenged by inmate advocacy groups, public defenders, judges and even some of the big-city mayors listening to his remarks.

“In the grand sweep of the nation’s criminal justice system, the release of this minuscule number of prisoners will not affect crime rates. It will, however, significantly improve the perceived fairness of our federal criminal justice system,” said Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah law school.

Cassell -- a former federal judge who led a policymaking arm of the federal courts that supported the sentence reductions -- noted that no prisoner would be released under the program unless a judge decided the inmate was no longer a threat to the community.

“All of these prisoners were going to be released in the future,” Cassell said, “so the retroactivity provision simply provides a slight acceleration of their release date.”

The number eligible, equal to about 10% of the federal prison population, amounts to the most sweeping act of federal clemency in history. But it is a small fraction of the inmates released from state and federal prisons every year.

“About 700,000 people are coming out of prison this year, many of whom were convicted of a violent offense. So now the change means we’ll have 701,600 instead. Seems like he’s kind of missing the point,” said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, an inmate advocacy group in Washington.

Mauer said that the criticism “is really an insult to the judges.”

Mukasey himself was a federal judge for 18 years before retiring in 2006.

“I think [Mukasey] is wrong,” said Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender for much of Virginia. “First, the number of people getting out in March may be much lower, and second, probation and the courts are more than capable of supervising these individuals.”

Mukasey said he was concerned that crack prisoners might be released before they had been given the education, job training and drug treatment customarily afforded ex-offenders. “We need time to develop all of that and roll it out, time that blanket retroactivity might not allow us,” he told the mayors.

The $200 million in proposed new funding for states and localities shows how violent crime remains a concern even as the federal government has focused on combating terrorism since the Sept. 11 attacks.

The number of murders, rapes and robberies in the U.S. rose in 2005 and 2006, reversing a decade-long trend.

Preliminary FBI data released this month showed that such violent crime dipped slightly for the first six months of 2007.