Miami-Dade County

First wave of prison releases from war on drugs begins

President Barack Obama tours a federal prison in Texas earlier this year.
President Barack Obama tours a federal prison in Texas earlier this year. The Associated Press

In his own defense, Emilio Flores described himself as an “unfortunate man plagued with mental illness, weighing 100 pounds soaking wet.” On and off his meds and addicted to cocaine, he claimed a Miami dealer fed his habit in exchange for his service as a low-level lookout back in 2008.

Still, Flores was hit with a stiff penalty after being convicted of conspiring to distribute just over a pound of cocaine — 10 years in prison.

This week, the 43-year-old Flores — along with roughly 6,000 other federal prisoners nationwide convicted of drug-trafficking offenses — was freed after a U.S. district judge in Miami cut his original sentence to 6  1/2 years under a major new early-release policy meant to reduce harsh sentences, prison overcrowding and rising incarceration costs — all the products of the nation’s “war on drugs.”

Flores is among 310 federal inmates released in Florida in what will likely be a wave of large-scale releases stemming from efforts to roll back sentencing policies that punished blacks and Hispanics far worse than whites for drug offenses.

The program — made possible because the U.S. Sentencing Commission reduced potential punishment for future drug offenders last year and made that change retroactive — has already led to the largest one-time release of federal prisoners in the nation's history.

There will almost certainly be thousands more freed in the next few years. In total, 46,000 federal inmates serving long sentences for drug offenses might be eligible for early release that would slice several years off their terms. Those eligible account for about half the inmates convicted of trafficking in the federal prison system.

The sea change has been building during Obama’s presidency as both Democrats and Republicans began to agree that draconian prison sentences imposed during the tough-on-crime years of the 1980s and 1990s had created stark inequities along racial lines. As a result, blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate number of the federal prison population, which has grown almost 10-fold since 1980 largely because of the crackdown on drug offenders.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission came to realize that the war on drugs “didn’t work,” said Miami defense lawyer David Weinstein, a former chief of the narcotics section at the U.S. attorney’s office.

“They are trying to fix a problem that they created, and they are trying to put some equity back in the system,” Weinstein said. “If they had done this to begin with, the sentences would not have been as long and the prisons would not have been as crowded.

“But 20 to 30 years ago, I don’t think there were politicians who would have agreed to lower sentences because the public would have viewed them as soft on crime.”

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based research and advocacy group for prison reform, said a range of factors has contributed to the shifting mindset, from the overall decline in crime to the rising cost of imprisoning drug offenders for decades.

“There is a growing consensus that the war on drugs has been enormously punitive, taken up enormous financial resources and has had minimal impact on public safety,” Mauer said.

He said the U.S. Sentencing Commission carefully studied recidivism rates and gave federal judges latitude in deciding whether eligible prisoners should be granted early release if they have violent histories.

Asked if the release of this many drug offenders was cause for alarm, Mauer said it would have a negligible impact. In the first of what could be a wave of large-scale releases, about 4,300 inmates were released to states across the country. Another 1,700 foreign inmates are being deported.

“Every year, 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons,” Mauer said. “This 6,000 is a drop in the bucket in the scheme of things.”

The federal government isn’t releasing any list of names of released inmates in Florida or any other state. But records in Miami federal court show that some have longer rap sheets than others. Among those released on Nov. 1 was Chedrick Crummie, sentenced to life imprisonment in Miami federal court in 1996 after a jury convicted him of conspiring to distribute between three and 10 pounds of cocaine. His sentence was also enhanced because he possessed a firearm as part of the crime.

Over the years, Crummie received two sentence reductions and sought a third under the early-release program. But in court papers, a prosecutor noted that one federal judge found that Crummie shot and killed two people and wounded a third with an assault rifle while dealing cocaine.

Nonetheless, in July, U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro reduced his sentence to 24 years, which, with good behavior in prison, allowed the 45-year-old Crummie to be released this week.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent agency that establishes sentencing policies for federal crimes, first sought to deal with inequities in punishment for drug offenders by analyzing the different treatment for crack versus cocaine traffickers. Crack, a scourge in the black community, carried heavier penalties than cocaine, which was more popular among whites.

In 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act to tighten the wide gap between the two types of drug offenses based on the amounts involved in the crimes.

Then, the commission altered sentencing guidelines with the policy referred to as “Drugs Minus Two,” which became effective Nov. 1, 2014, after Congress took no action. The two-level decrease — under sentencing guidelines that take a defendant’s criminal history, type of crime, leadership role and gun violence into account — has translated into an average of two years being shaved off eligible prisoners’ terms.

The commission gave the Justice Department a year to handle the onslaught of prisoners’ applications for early release, which were decided by federal court judges across the country. According to the commission, a total of 23,022 prisoners applied through late October, with 17,128 granted and 5,894 denied, mostly because the inmates had a violent history or a bad prison record. Their early release dates would depend on the length of their original sentences.

In Florida, Flores was among more than 310 federal inmates prosecuted and convicted for drug offenses who have been released back into the state, according to the Justice Department.

Flores filed his petition for early release just days after the commission’s policy took effect last November. He portrayed himself as a “minor participant” in a cocaine-distribution ring, claiming he was “actually a victim” who was “being taken advantage of by” the leader “due to his mental health problems and drug addiction.”

He said he let the ringleader store cocaine in his Miami apartment and was paid with small bags of coke for his personal use.

“Emilio is severely impaired by mental illness and is in constant danger of physical harm in his dangerous prison environment,” Flores, who was imprisoned at a South Carolina federal facility, wrote in his petition for release. “The treatment is to medicate the mentally ill into zombies.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami noted in its response that Flores “has had a number of disciplinary problems over the years.”

In March of this year, U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno considered lowering his 10-year sentence to 6  1/2 to 8 years under the early-release program. Moreno opted for the low end of that range.

Despite that decision months ago, Flores — like thousands of other drug felons granted a break in their sentences — had to wait until Nov. 1 of this year to be released.

While the commission sought to correct years of mass incarceration for drug offenses, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder also instructed federal prosecutors not to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenders with offenses that carry severe mandatory sentences.

“We must ensure that our most severe mandatory minimum penalties are reserved for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers,” Holder wrote in a August 2013 memo.

On a parallel track, President Barack Obama has sought to provide clemency for certain nonviolent drug offenders. During his administration, he has granted early release to 89 inmates.

Among them: Valerie Bozeman, a Pompano Beach woman whose life sentence on a drug conviction was commuted by the president in March. Bozeman, 48, who served 22 years in prison, was released in July.

Back in the early 1990s, Bozeman suffered from drug addiction and sought treatment, but she fell in with a bad crowd and became an “administrator” for dealers charged with conspiring to distribute 165 pounds of crack cocaine, according to court records. After her conviction at trial, Bozeman, with two prior drug offenses, faced a mandatory life sentence.

For years, she filed appeals and petitions, to no avail.

But ultimately, even the federal judge who sentenced her realized Bozeman did not deserve to die in prison, expressing support for her early release.

The judge, Ungaro, issued a statement thanking the president and federal public defender’s office for correcting a wrong: “I want to wish [her] well as she sets out to reclaim her family and establish herself as a productive, law abiding member of her community.”