900 inmates might be released early

GREENVILLE, S.C. --- As many as 900 federal inmates in South Carolina serving time on crack cocaine convictions might be released early under new sentencing guidelines.

The reductions are aimed at eliminating the large disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and those for powder cocaine offenses.

The number of inmates leaving prison early will be spread out over the next 30 years, depending on the length of their sentences, Quincy Avinger, the deputy chief of the South Carolina District U.S. Probation Office, told The Greenville News.

At least 17 people have been released from prison in the Upstate in the month since federal judges have been able to reduce crack cocaine sentences. Those released are under probationary supervision, Deputy Chief Avinger said.

Probation officers still have about a third of the estimated 1,300 inmates serving crack sentences left to review. The probation office makes recommendations on eligible inmates to the public defender's office, said Ben Stepp, an assistant federal public defender in Greenville.

The public defenders present the recommendations to the U.S. attorney's office, which looks at what other crimes a person was convicted of as well as his or her record in prison.

"We, the government, are not opposing the motions unless there is post-sentencing evidence that the defendant is either a danger to the community or for some other reason just flat doesn't qualify," said Nancy Wicker, a spokeswoman for South Carolina's U.S. attorney.

In December, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow about 19,500 federal prison inmates to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences.

The decision follows years of criticism about how severely the federal court system treated those convicted of crack cocaine offenses as opposed to those convicted of other drug crimes.

The sentences for crack can be three to six times longer than those for powder cocaine, according to a sentencing commission report.

In Greenville, the federal public defender's office has handled at least two-dozen requests since March 3 and only one inmate has been denied a sentence reduction, Mr. Stepp said.