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Univ. of San Diego School of Law

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Sentencing Guidelines For Crack, New Challenges

Michael D. Thompson, a former crack cocaine dealer, thought he deserved a break.

Sentenced in 2000 to 15 years and eight months in prison, Thompson asked a federal judge in the District to release him, arguing that he had received an unfair sentence and has turned his life around behind bars, earning a general equivalency diploma and completing a commercial driving course.

Federal prosecutors said that was a terrible idea. Citing Thompson's criminal past and prison disciplinary record, which includes threatening a prison official with a knife, prosecutors argued in court papers that the 37-year-old poses a danger to the community and should complete his sentence.

Thompson's case is one of thousands around the country in which crack offenders and their defense attorneys are sparring with federal prosecutors over how to interpret new sentencing guidelines for crack possession or sale. The guidelines were issued to right old wrongs. But they have led to time-consuming legal challenges dealing with the often long-forgotten consequences of the bloody crack wars in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Defense lawyers say they are correcting systemic sentencing flaws that removed their clients, mostly black men, from their communities for too many years. Federal prosecutors say they are working to prevent bad guys from returning to the streets to wreak more havoc. Both sides say they are seeking justice. [Mark Godsey]

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