"No one's getting a deal," said Mirchandani, the federal public defender. "In some cases, they should have been released months if not years ago. In some cases, they've already over-served their time."

The national Fraternal Order of Police, however, warned in testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission in June that the majority of those being released have multiple prior convictions and are "clearly … likely to re-offend."

Noting budget cuts to law enforcement across the country, David Hiller, a vice president with the FOP, said "releasing thousands of convicted drug offenders will only add to that strain, creating a potentially dangerous situation that we can, and must, avoid."

Critics of changes to sentencing laws point to reoffenders like Clevon Johnson, who was indicted in 1997 along with three others and charged with conspiracy to distribute crack on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Also charged in the indictment was Emory Jones, an associate of the rapper Shawn Carter, better known as Jay-Z, who featured a prison collect call from Jones in one of his songs.

When Jones was nearing release last year, Carter wrote a letter to the judge overseeing the case, promising that a job was waiting for Jones at his company, Roc-A-Fella Records.

Johnson didn't have a music mogul going to bat for him, but earlier retroactive sentencing changes shaved his sentence from 210 months to 168, and he was released a short time after the reduction.

Now Johnson, known as "Big Ty," has been charged again, indicted in July with conspiring with five others to distribute heroin and cocaine between the Eastern Shore and Baltimore region. He is scheduled for a rearraignment next month.

Rosenstein, the federal prosecutor, says he also worries that inmates are being expedited for release and not being directed to a transitional program such as a halfway house.

"It's especially important that probation officers remain active in supervising folks," Rosenstein said. "They'll need more than the ordinary level of supervision."

Of those already approved for release by federal judges, many had been linked to illegal firearms and violence: In one case, agents found an assault rifle, a loaded pistol and a handgun with hollow-point bullets during an arrest, but his conviction reflects only drugs. Another man had survived at least two attempts on his life before being convicted of crack conspiracy in 2004. A third was chased by police into a house where officers found drugs and weapons.

And there are cases like that of Nicole Rorie, who was found inside a home on Greenmount Avenue in February 2009 with 7.5 grams of crack — the equivalent weight of three pennies — in her left pants pocket. She was sentenced to five years in prison in September 2010 but released this month under the new guidelines. But court records also show she was ordered in December to serve 10 years in state prison on a probation violation stemming from an earlier assault conviction.

Regardless of the allegations in each case, Mauer and others said it doesn't make sense to punish people differently based of the form of drugs involved. In fact, advocates for revising the guidelines said the recent changes haven't gone far enough. They pointed to the 18-to-1 disparity remains that remains intact, and say studies show crack is not associated with violent crime more than any other drug.

"We're still treating two forms of the same drug very differently," he said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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