Nearly 30 federal inmates in Minnesota who were convicted of crack cocaine offenses may be eligible for release because of a change in federal sentencing guidelines. This week Congress changed the sentences for crack cocaine offenses, an adjustment federal authorities in Minnesota have been preparing for.
Minnesota's federal public defender, Katherian Roe, said her staff has been working nights and weekends to review 30 years worth of case files. So far, her office has found 28 inmates who may be eligible to benefit from the change in federal sentencing laws. Some have been in prison for decades.
"Those are just the immediate folks. There are certainly many more who will be eligible," Roe said. "We're estimating somewhere between 100 and 150 in the district of Minnesota."
Since the 1980s, a conviction for possession or sale of a small amount of crack resulted in a prison sentence 100 times longer than the one handed out for the same amount of powder cocaine.
A U.S. Sentencing Commission report said the new sentencing guidelines will reduce Minnesota crack offenders' sentences by 17 percent, from more than 14 years to nearly 12 years.
The report shows Minnesota has 160 inmates doing time for crack possession or sale. Under the new law, some of their sentences are now complete, and they can apply for release.
A judge has to approve the request, and then decide the specifics of their release. Roe said the inmates may not have some of the support systems others do upon release.
"But the bureau of prisons will still be in contact with the probation office in the district of release and try to make sure this person... has a stable environment to live in and they have a place to go," Monroe said.
That seeming lack of preparation for the offender's release concerns the U.S. Attorney's office in Minnesota. Spokeswoman Jeanne Cooney said Minnesota's U.S. Attorney has filed a motion in federal court for time to review the cases.
"I'm not going to talk about any specific case," Cooney said. "I'll just say there are a few with which we disagree."
She said the U.S. Bureau of Prisons must make sure it's following federal law by notifying victims and law enforcement in communities where ex-offenders will end up.
Another concern for the U.S. Attorney's office involves inmates with multiple convictions under both federal and state laws. Those inmates will be turned over to state authorities.
"An example of that might be if we're talking about somebody who may be subject to a civil commitment proceeding as a sexual predator," Cooney said. "In most cases that's certainly not going to be a necessity, but in those cases where it is, the court may determine that in this case this person is ineligible for release."
Because some drug cases can involve sex offenses, Cooney said the U.S. Attorney's office has to be careful about who gets released.
She won't say how many of the inmates eligible for release also have convictions for sex offenses.
For ex-offenders who are released, advocates worry support systems won't be in place.
"For some of these people, they probably need substance abuse treatment. While they were released because of the change in the law, they weren't found innocent," said Dan Cain, president of RS Eden, an agency that houses ex-offenders. "If you went in with a drug habit and nothing changes inside other than you don't use drugs, you come out with a drug habit."
Minnesota has tried to deal with this issue before.
In 1991, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that the long crack cocaine sentences unfairly targeted blacks. In response, state lawmakers increased sentences for other street drugs.
Drug offenders have helped fuel a rise in the state's prison population ever since.