Crack 'pipeline' cases wrapping up

Crack 'pipeline' cases wrapping up

April 3rd, 2013 by Todd South in Local Regional News

BY THE NUMBERS

10,605 - Number of crack-cocaine cases affected

6,626 - Number of sentence reductions

220 - Number of cases in Tennessee

176 - Number of Tennessee cases granted a reduction

87 - Percent of offenders nationwide who are black

2 - Average number of years sentence reduced

Source: U.S. Sentencing Commission December 2012 report

On Jan. 9, 2010, Jackie Campbell was stopped while driving from his Atlanta home and into Chattanooga.

Police searched his car and found 170 grams of crack cocaine.

Based on the amount of the drug and his criminal history, Campbell was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

A few months later Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which was aimed at reducing what frequently were 100-to-1 disparities between federal prison sentences for cases involving crack and powder cocaine.

Campbell, who is black, became one of more than 12,000 federal inmates nationwide caught in a sort of limbo dubbed the "pipeline cases," for offenders who had been arrested on crack-related charges before the act but were not sentenced until after its passage.

Since the pipeline cases emerged, defendants in 10,605 cases affected by the change applied for a sentence reduction.

Campbell was among them. But sentence reductions were not assured.

Of those, 63 percent, or 6,626, were granted a reduction, according to a December 2012 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that essentially wrapped up the last of the crack "pipeline" cases.

In Tennessee 220 such inmates applied and 176 were granted reductions.

The average sentence nationally was reduced by 20 percent, or more than two years.

Yet Campbell still hadn't heard about his sentence.

•••

In most cases the ratio used in calculating the prison sentence was 100 to 1, powder to crack.

In other words, a person caught with 500 grams of powder could receive a five-year prison sentence. It would take 5 grams of crack cocaine to trigger the same sentence.

Critics long have seen this as a knee-jerk reaction by Congress during the drug wars of the 1980s that disproportionately affected black offenders, as crack was mostly dealt and used by blacks while powder cocaine was used more often by whites.

At the time drug sentencing guidelines were created, crack use was associated with more violent crimes and saturated media coverage contributed to public fear of the drug and the belief that it was much more addictive than the powder form.

More than 87 percent of the inmates affected by the pipeline cases are black.

Meanwhile, two judges in Chattanooga federal court, Curtis Collier and Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice, applied the new sentencing rules differently.

Collier sentenced pipeline cases in his court under the new post-Act guidelines. Mattice maintained sentencing under the previous rules for cases in which the crime occurred before the act.

It was Mattice who sentenced Campbell.

Julie Stewart, president of the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said the act held a lot of promise but fell far short of its original goals.

For one, the act lowered but did not level the disparity. Crack amounts for sentencing are still allowed at an 18 to 1 ratio.

And because Congress did not apply the act retroactively, 20,000 prisoners being held on the old sentencing guidelines did not benefit from its passage.

Stewart especially faults politicians who used examples of extremely long prison sentences of inmates convicted in crack cases to help get the act passed. None of those prisoners saw any change in their sentence.

"Cocaine is cocaine is cocaine," Stewart said. "This is more a policy distinction than a medical or chemical one."

"I think one of the hardest things to have in prison is hope," she said. There was a tremendous amount of build-up to changes in crack sentencing while the act was being created.

But the result created "enormous disappointment and frustration."

Finally, last week, Campbell learned the result of his application.

His 20-year mandatory minimum sentence was cut in half to 10 years.

Contact staff writer Todd South at tsouth@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @tsouthCTFP.