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Crime & Courts

Smart on Crime early-release plan reverberates in Middle District

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Published:   |   Updated: August 23, 2014 at 06:36 PM

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As federal officials embark on programs designed to grant early release to thousands of federal inmates, the Middle District of Florida is expected to be one of the most affected jurisdictions in the country.

The Smart on Crime initiatives are driven by the Obama administration, with backing from both sides of the political aisle. The idea is to roll back what many see as overly aggressive sentencing policies, particularly aimed at drug offenders.

The initiatives are being pursued on two tracks:

A clemency program invites federal inmates who meet certain criteria to apply to have their sentences commuted. To be eligible, inmates must have served at least 10 years of their sentences for nonviolent crimes. The program affects only inmates whose prison terms likely would be less if they were sentenced today.

Sentencing guidelines relating to drug offenses are being rolled back, reducing all drug sentences by two levels. The U.S. Sentencing Commission voted in July to make this change, known as Drugs Minus 2, retroactive, allowing most incarcerated drug offenders to receive lower sentences starting Nov. 1, 2015.

The retroactive application of the change in the sentencing guidelines is expected to affect more than 46,000 inmates. If projections hold true, the average sentence of 11 years and 1 month will be reduced to nine years.

Tampa lawyer Katherine Yanes volunteered to represent at least one inmate seeking clemency because she feels strongly about the case of a former client who was convicted in Key West of trafficking more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. Because he had three prior low-level state drug convictions, he was sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentence of life in federal prison.

Now 50, her former client has been behind bars since 1999, she said. “I think life for a nonviolent offense is horrific and shouldn’t happen.”

“The reason I’m so focused on him in connection with the clemency is he’s kind of exactly who I think the clemency initiative is targeted at: people who were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses who were sentenced to extremely harsh mandatory minimum sentences that he probably wouldn’t have gotten under the current system.”

The Sentencing Commission identified six of the 94 federal court districts across the country, including the Middle District of Florida, expected to have higher concentrations of cases affected by the change in guidelines. The Sentencing Commission estimated about 1,300 defendants in the Middle District, which stretches from northeast Florida to south of Naples, will be eligible for retroactive drug sentence reductions.

Public Defender Donna Elm said about half of the eligible cases in the district involve defendants prosecuted in the Tampa federal courthouse.

Of the hundreds applying for clemency from the Middle District, an estimated 70 to 75 likely will meet the criteria, Elm said. About half of those, as well, were sentenced in Tampa.

One reason is that the Middle District of Florida, with an estimated 11 million residents, is the second largest federal court district in the nation by population.

“But it also depends on our U.S. attorney’s office prosecution decisions,” Elm said. “When the crimes can be charged in state or federal courts, then the U.S. attorney’s office has to decide whether to prosecute them federally; they did make the decision to do so many years back, leading to a large number of drug prosecutions in federal courts in our district. So both the overall large population plus the charging decisions led to us having such a high number of these cases.”

Elm said the district doesn’t have more people using drugs than the rest of the nation. “I really think the percentage of drug addiction and abuse is probably about the same all over the place,” she said. The prosecutions are the result of “a well-intentioned policy to try and stop drug abuse that turned out not to work.”

U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley said the district is expected to have the sixth largest number of defendants eligible for retroactive drug sentence reductions, behind Puerto Rico and all four districts of Texas.

Bentley said he expects at least 2,000 inmates to file motions in court seeking sentence reductions.

Bentley said his office is aggressive across the board, not just against drug suspects.

“The reason we have so many eligible defendants is because we prosecute so many cases,” he said. “Every year, we are at the top or near the top in the number of cases charged nationally.”

The district’s percentage of drug cases out of its total caseload isn’t far from the national average, he said. Last year, for example, 21.75 percent of all federal cases nationally were drug cases; the figure was 22.2 percent in the Middle District of Florida.

“I’m very proud of the drug prosecutions that our office has done over the last two decades,” Bentley said. “Among other things, we have Operation Panama Express, which I believe has been the most successful narcotics interdiction effort in the United States. We’ve seized over 1,000 tons of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific Ocean that was bound for the United States, and prosecuted hundreds upon hundreds of mariners and cocaine traffickers in Columbia responsible for those shipments.”

Those mariners will be among the inmates now eligible to receive sentence reductions.

Bentley said his office so far has received about a dozen clemency requests from the Justice Department’s pardon attorney, who is screening applications for eligibility.

“We’ve already expressed our views on a few, and the others are being actively reviewed,” Bentley said. He would not comment on the cases or say what percentage his office is recommending receive commutations.

Most of the clemency applications are from drug offenders, Bentley said.

“I think the clemency program is in its infancy, and it remains to be seen exactly how it’s going to work and how many offenders will receive reductions in their sentences, but the idea behind the program makes sense,” he said. “There are too many people in prison serving lengthy sentences for drug offenses who are nonviolent and are not part of any organized criminal gang, and, at this point, we simply can’t afford to warehouse men for 30, 40 and 50 years for low-level nonviolent drug offenses not connected to a larger criminal enterprise.”

Elm said lawyers in her office plan to begin filing motions for sentence reductions under the Drugs Minus 2 initiative in November. Although inmates won’t be released for another year, Elm said she hopes inmates eligible for early release can be moved to halfway houses in the meantime.

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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