Should Sentencing Reform Be Retroactive?

Not everyone supports retroactive, lesser sentences for crack cocaine offenders. For more on that point of view, Farai Chideya talks with Chuck Canterbury, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. He warns of "catastrophic public safety consequences" if prisoners are released before their original sentences are up.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Earlier this month, new federal sentencing guidelines took effect for crack cocaine offenses. We just heard from an advocate who thinks people already in jail should have their sentences reduced in line with the new laws. But not everyone supports that plan.

Chuck Canterbury is national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, it's the largest law enforcement labor organization in the United States.

Chuck, welcome to the show.

Mr. CHUCK CANTERBURY (National President, Fraternal Order of Police): Thank you. I'm glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So both you and Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project, who we just heard from, testified on Capitol Hill earlier this week. And in your testimony, you warned of, quote "catastrophic public safety consequences if prisoners are released early." Why do you think that's the case?

Mr. CANTERBURY: Well, I think, primarily, because 80 percent of the people that would be released are previously being convicted of crimes prior to this last arrest. Most of them have multiple prior convictions, and 35 percent of those that are in jail for crack possession possesses firearms during the commission of their crime.

And if we could have - under the commission's own data, we could have a projected 2,500 this year alone, back out on the street, and 5,000 within 24 months. And with that, and with the recidivism rate for crack, we believe that there will be a rather large upswing in crack-related crimes.

CHIDEYA: Now, I want to get into two different areas. One is prison overcrowding, the other one is race and sentencing.

Some people have looked at this whole move by the Sentencing Commission and said, well, maybe it's partly about prison overcrowding. There are prisons, for example, in California where people are sleeping in gyms and, you know, quadrupling up in places that were supposed to be for two people. Does this have anything to do with the overcrowding issue, in your opinion?

Mr. CANTERBURY: I believe it does. I believe that there is a underlying issue of finances because I heard of a witness testify that this would save $87 million annually to the federal prison system. And that's fairly significant dollar amounts for the every day person. But in the overall picture of the federal prison, $87 million versus the damage that criminals put on the victims in America, $87 million is not an equal wash.

CHIDEYA: What about the issue of race and sentencing? Powder cocaine much lower sentences, per gram. Is there any racial disparity in your mind or are there reasons why the crack cocaine sentences are higher?

Mr. CANTERBURY: Well, there are reasons and - but we readily admit that there is a disparity. But when we testified earlier before the commission made the changes, we asked for an increase in the powder cocaine rather than reduce powder cocaine or crack cocaine. We thought they should be equal punishments, but then we thought that the punishment for the powder should move up rather than the other way around.

Congress, originally, passed crack laws because of the huge upswing in crime when crack first hit the market. They talk about the chemical compound being very similar. Well, as a practitioner, I can tell you they may test out as the same drug in a lab. But on the street, they're two different products.

CHIDEYA: When you look at the years that crack cocaine has been on the American drug market, do you see any successes?

Mr. CANTERBURY: Yeah, but I believe the use of crack is actually down. But unfortunately, the use of crystal meth is up, and it's primarily based on socio-economic indicators rather than race, and its supply and demand. They've - they create cheaper drugs for people that can't afford them. And unfortunately, when they've done that, they've created two extremely dangerous drugs with crack and crystal meth.

CHIDEYA: Now, if the commission decides to retroactively sentence crack cocaine offenders and does release many of them, thousands of them, what do you think it's going to mean for police officers?

Mr. CANTERBURY: I think it's going to be a huge upswing in crime, predominantly, thefts and assaults. And with the increased use of firearms in drug-related cases, I believe that the current upswing in officers being killed in line of duty will go up even higher.

Now, we have a 40 percent increase this year. Over last year, an officer is killed in the line of duty, and a huge increase in assaults on police officers.

CHIDEYA: Do you get any feedback from neighborhoods in terms of, you know, community policing? Do you have any idea what community members think about the issue of releasing prisoners and/or bringing the sentences more in line with powder cocaine?

Mr. CANTERBURY: From the community activists' standpoint, at the lowest level, the introduction of community policing teams in the neighborhoods that were crack ridden have been - and pardon the expression, but the saviors of those communities. And so most of the young activists that I have dealt with in the last 10 years have been extremely pleased that the sentences that - when we can get the federal authorities involved. And we got to understand, these are federal prisoners only. The vast majority of crack cocaine prosecutions are done at the state level. But the federal sentences have taken long-term drug dealers out of these neighborhoods and given these neighborhoods an opportunity to heal and work towards improvement.

And I would think at the lowest level, the vast majority of activists in those communities - and I testified with the gentleman from a (unintelligible) program in Statesville, North Carolina that testified just to that fact that this has been the savior of the communities.

CHIDEYA: Well, Chuck, thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. CANTERBURY: Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: Chuck Canterbury is national president of the Fraternal Order of Police.

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