Nearly 1,500 Florida crack offenders released early

TAMPA — Reductions in prison terms kicked in Monday for hundreds of federal inmates convicted of a crack cocaine offense, a move approved late last year by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to fix the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences.

The amendment affects about 19,500 prisoners nationwide and 1,456 in Florida — among them, 29-year-old Jonathan Wade Jr. of Clearwater, who showed up on his family's doorstep Monday.

Wade learned only Thursday that he was headed home 14 months earlier than his expected July 2009 release date.

"Tomorrow, I plan on looking for a job, going to see my probation officer and spending time with family that I've missed for five years," Wade said.

The Middle District of Florida, which includes 35 of 67 counties, with headquarters in Tampa, accounts for the second-highest number in the nation of offenders eligible for a reduction.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission estimated about 2,520 prisoners of the 19,500 nationally will be eligible for sentence reductions in the first year. In the Middle District, the Federal Public Defender's Office has focused its efforts on reduced prison terms for inmates with release dates in 2008, 2009 and 2010.

The average sentence reduction could range between 12 months and 24 months.

Jim Skuthan, chief assistant for the Federal Public Defender's Office in Orlando, said his office hadn't tracked how many inmates may have been released Monday.

The sentencing commission and U.S. Probation Office listed 395 defendants sentenced by a judge in the Middle District. Of that, 137 were sentenced at the federal courthouse in Tampa.

Skuthan applauded the probation office and U.S. Attorney's Office for working hard to identify eligible inmates and collaborating to prepare their cases.

The disparity in cocaine sentences has long been viewed as racially discriminatory, because crack is predominately used by blacks and powder by whites.

Wade, imprisoned on a crack conviction in 2003, was serving a nearly six-year sentence when U.S. District Judge Richard Lazzara signed an order reducing it.

Wade said he's grateful for the early release and hopes Congress or the sentencing commission will help others who didn't qualify.

The sentencing commission voted to ease the federal guidelines Nov. 1. On Dec. 11, it agreed to make the change retroactive. The Bush administration opposed that, saying communities would suffer from the early releases.

But supporters of the amendment say the plan has stops to prevent that, like keeping the worst offenders from benefitting.

Among those who don't qualify for a reduced sentence are career offenders, armed career offenders and those serving mandatory-minimum prison terms.

Robert Batey, a professor of criminal law at Stetson University College of Law, serves as coordinator for the Tampa Bay chapter of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. The organization fought hard for the reductions.

"It's very heartening that some individuals will be able to come home a few months earlier," Batey said.

Kevin Graham can be reached at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Nearly 1,500 Florida crack offenders released early 03/03/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2008 12:32am]

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