Thousands of crack cocaine dealers and users are freed from federal prison

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KMOV.com

Posted on November 1, 2011 at 9:34 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 2 at 1:08 PM

(KMOV) -- As many as 12,000 crack-cocaine users and dealers are getting an early release from federal prison.

Thirty-four are headed to the St. Louis area after a new sentencing guideline went into effect November 1.  It's saving taxpayers, but some are asking 'at what cost?'

The laws changed to put crack cocaine sentencing more in line with punishment for powder cocaine offenses, but the difference is still staggering.  Someone caught with 28 grams of crack cocaine (think 28 packets of Sweet-N-Low) would do the same time as someone with 500 grams of powder cocaine.  That's 18 times as much.  It used to be worse.  The U.S. Sentencing Commission just moved the mandatory punishment up from 5 grams of crack to 28 grams of crack. 

"I was drug trafficking large amounts -- kilos and stuff like that," Allie Harper says.  "It was part of my environment, you know, to see guys with big cars, fancy cars, women, money."

Harper is 42 years old.  He's spent the past 16 years of his life behind bars after a federal conviction for dealing crack cocaine.  But he's out.  Eight years early.

I asked him how he can be sure that he won't slip back into the game.  After all, he comes home without a job lined up.

"I took it upon myself to better myself while I was in prison," Harper says.  "I took a lot of programs, educated myself and said you know, I'm not going to live that life no more."

The drastic difference between crack and powder cocaine sentencing started during the crack epidemic in the 1980s.  The law swept up thousands of low-level and nonviolent offenders.  The majority were blacks.

"Those walls are packed with minorities, guys like myself, and they want to get out and make changes, you know, for the better," Harper says.

The new law attempts to level the playing field, but it puts a lot of prisoners back on the street.

"As much as we try to make everyone successful in the community, there are some people who will not give up the life of crime," Chief U.S. Probation Officer Doug Burris says.

But consider the evidence.  Burris says during the first wave of early releases in 2007, 462 prisoners came back to our area.  Only 22 went back to prison.  That's less than 7 percent.

I asked Burris how the federal system ensures that that number stays low this time around too.

"In the federal system, each of these crack release people has a hearing where a judge decides whether they're worthy of a release or not," Burris explains.  "What they do with that is look at their background, including their record while they were in prison, and if they were involved in educational programs, employment programs, things like that, their likelihood of getting the early release was significant."

And it's the feds' job to make sure their parolees aren't creating new victims in the community.

"So we have a strong surveillance team, we have drug testing, and we have a search team if we get word that they might be involved in illegal activity," Burris says.

"I look back and say 'if I could do things different, I would have'," Harper says.

On average, the new law will shave three years from a drug offender's sentence, saving taxpayers $28,000 a year per prisoner.

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