A federal judge in Maryland granted compassionate release to a South Baltimore man serving life in prison for nonviolent drug crimes, part of what could be a wave of such cases following the First Step Act and a recent appellate court ruling.
In releasing 56-year-old Paul George Kratsas from prison last month, U.S. District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow cited a December ruling by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals that found that district judges are “empowered to consider any extraordinary and compelling reason that a defendant might raise” and that past mandatory sentences “exceeded those necessary to achieve the ends of justice.”
John Gleeson, a former federal judge in Brooklyn, New York, who argued the appellate case cited by Chasanow, said the ruling and others like it across the country show that “judges are being judges again, acting as a check on prosecutors’ misuse of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.”
Kratsas had been seeking release for years. He was charged in 1992 with trafficking cocaine and laundering the money through an automobile business, and rejected a 20-year plea offer, taking the case to trial. He was convicted and sentenced to what was then a mandatory term of life in prison.
Chasanow said she was impressed by Kratsas’s persistence: “Few defendants, left to their own devices, present as well-reasoned, comprehensive, and compelling motions as those filed by Mr. Kratsas over the years.”
“Undeterred by his lack of success, Mr. Kratsas persevered and his latest motion will be granted,” Chasanow wrote in an opinion filed Jan. 25. “It is time to recognize that both the law and Mr. Kratsas have changed over the last three decades.”
Bureau of Prisons records show Kratsas was released Feb. 5. He could not be reached for comment.
While sentencing reforms have led to changes in how drug defendants are sentenced now, experts say retroactive reductions have remained challenging and inconsistent. South Dakota-based prisoner advocate Karlis Baisden celebrated news of Kratsas’s release on Twitter, calling it an “expanded use of compassionate release.”
“When I wrote a 3582 [motion] two years ago for my friend Paul Kratsas it seemed like a total hail Mary,” Baisden wrote. “I hope the momentum extends to him & others.”
Chasanow cited the December 2020 Fourth Circuit appellate decision of U.S. vs. McCoy, which was argued by Gleeson, a former federal judge who now works as a civil rights attorney fighting to release people sentenced under harsh mandatory minimums.
“We already have 15 guys released simply because they received sentences of bone-crushing length and have matured and shown rehabilitation,” Gleeson said Monday. He said it is “exactly what Congress intended when it passed the First Step Act in 2018.”
The act, which received bipartisan congressional support, was passed to reduce inmate populations and to allow inmates sentenced under earlier, more punishing guidelines to have paths to release.
The McCoy decision also included a Maryland case, involving three men convicted of bank robberies in 1993 and 1994. U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake granted their motions for compassionate release, reducing their sentences to time served.
Federal prosecutors opposed the release of those men, as well as Kratsas’s release. They argued that a disproportionately long sentence is not an “extraordinary and compelling” reason for release.
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“That Kratsas, after serving more than 27 years in prison, now wishes to be released is understandable, but it is not extraordinary or compelling under any commonly accepted meaning of those terms and is not consistent with the applicable policy statement of the Sentencing Commission,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Brandon J. Roberts and Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy F. Hagan Jr. wrote in 2019.
In a filing Monday in the case of two corrupt Baltimore Police officers seeking release, federal prosecutors acknowledged the McCoy decision but warned against it being broadly applied.
“That would literally open the floodgates to federal litigation and re-sentencings,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandra Wilkinson wrote. “The government submits that this court must find more than sentencing disparity to justify a finding of ‘extraordinary and compelling reasons’ to reduce defendants’ sentences.”
Kratsas was a model prisoner during his quarter-century locked up, earning a rare transfer to a low-security facility. Inmates sentenced to life typically by default are deemed high-risk. A clemency request to President Barack Obama was denied.
Andy White, a former federal prosecutor who tried Kratsas’s case, wrote a letter of support on his behalf.
“There is no question in my mind that the more than 28 years that Mr. Kratsas has already spent in custody is more than adequate to reflect the seriousness of the non-violent drug offense for which he was convicted,” White wrote. “He has already spent over half his life incarcerated, and should not have to spend another day in prison.”