Inmates could go free early

GETTING OUT: About 750 federal prison inmates convicted of crack cocaine charges in South Carolina could be getting out of prison earlier than expected. Defense lawyers said Wednesday that they have begun getting calls from inmates who may qualify for reduced sentences after a U.S. Sentencing Commission decision this week. The commission wanted to reduce the disparity in prison time for crack and powder cocaine offenses and voted unanimously Tuesday to make those changes retroactive.

WHAT'S NEXT: The reductions won't be automatic. Each case must first be reviewed by a judge. Nationally, nearly 10 percent of 19,500 eligible inmates could be released March 3, and about 3,800 inmates could be released in the next year, according to the commission.

In South Carolina, about 50 inmates would be eligible in the spring, and 81 other inmates within a year.

THE IMPACT: The commission's decision, along with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling Monday that federal judges can impose shorter sentences for crack cocaine crimes, could also spur a change in state laws.

Several state legislators said the penalties for crack and powder cocaine crimes should be the same.

-- Associated Press