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Hundreds of Marylanders will be among federal drug prisoners released early

Hundreds of Marylanders will be among the federal prisoners to be released early beginning next month, under new drug sentencing guidelines meant to relieve overcrowding and shorten what many see as draconian sentences.

The move has won praise from sentencing reform advocates, who say harsh drug sentences have disproportionately affected the poor and minorities. It's also drawing concern from some law enforcement leaders, who worry about the impact of a large release.

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About 140 people from Maryland will be released from custody on Nov. 1, with hundreds more eligible over the coming months, said James Wyda, federal public defender for Maryland. The early releases are the result of changes to federal sentencing guidelines approved last year.

Wyda said too many people have served "excessive sentences at a brutal human cost to the individuals and their families."

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He added, "Our criminal justice system has a long way to go. But Nov. 1 is an important step in reforming a broken system."

An association that represents federal prosecutors criticized the move.

"Drug trafficking is inherently violent, and it is serious criminal activity," said Steve Cook, president of the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys.

Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent body that sets guidelines used to calculate federal prison sentences, voted to reduce the penalty recommendations for drug trafficking crimes. Later, the panel decided to make the change retroactive, so current prisoners could apply for reduced sentences.

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The commission has estimated that more than 46,000 prisoners nationwide could have their sentences retroactively reduced by an average of 25 months. The average sentence would still be 108 months.

Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce said that the retroactivity decision was delayed for a year to give the Bureau of Prisons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the federal probation office time to address issues such as re-entry, deportation and supervised release.

All cases have been reviewed by judges, who considered whether the prisoners would pose a threat to public safety if released early, officials said. Roughly 75 percent of applications have been granted by the courts, said Matt Osterrieder, spokesman for the sentencing commission.

Nationwide, about 6,000 people will be released around Nov. 1, but roughly 2,000 will go to immigrant detention centers. Many of the people set for release next month are already in halfway houses, officials said.

One of them is Maryland resident Mitchell Douglass, 50, who pleaded guilty in 2010 to possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. In a phone interview, Douglass said he was set to be released from a federal prison in 2017, but will now get out in November.

He was transferred to a Rockville pre-release center in May and is working for a trash-hauling service.

"To not go back to jail, I would work three or four jobs if I have to," said Douglass, who added that he is especially excited about spending time with his 4- and 7-year-old granddaughters.

According to documents filed in federal court, prosecutors alleged that in January 2010, Douglass was stopped on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway in Anne Arundel County with more than a kilogram of cocaine in a backpack found on the back seat of his vehicle.

Douglass said he was "ecstatic" when he found out his sentence was reduced, but believes most federal drug sentences are overly harsh.

"There's a lot of guys doing way too much time," Douglass said. "Personally, I thought I was oversentenced in the first place."

The sentencing commission has estimated that more than 500 prisoners will eventually return to Maryland under the revised sentences. Wyda said his office believes the commission's projections are low and there could be more cases.

Baltimore Interim Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he hopes those being released have the support they need to adjust.

"It's important for public safety that those persons returning to our neighborhoods have a legitimate and productive start," Davis said in a statement. "I'm hopeful these re-entry plans include constructive efforts to encourage good citizenship."

The release will come at a sensitive time for Baltimore, which has grappled with a spike in homicides and shootings this year.

Cook said federal prosecutors around the country are worried crime will rise, especially with many communities in the midst of a heroin epidemic.

"Our concern is simple — the more criminals you put on the street, the more crime you're going to have," Cook said. "And releasing [thousands of] convicted drug traffickers, many of whom have ties to gangs and drug cartels, will have an obvious impact and increase in serious and violent crime."

Supporters of reform say there is no evidence that will happen.

"I tire of these predictions of dire consequences, quite frankly, because they have not been borne out," said Mary Price, general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, a non-profit group that advocates for sentencing reform.

A study released last year by the sentencing commission found that offenders who were released early under 2007 revisions to crack cocaine guidelines were no more likely to re-offend than those who served slightly longer sentences.

Douglass said that like him, many people set for release this fall have already been serving in halfway houses for months, working in the community and "being productive citizens out there."

"It's not like the floodgates are opening," Douglass said.

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