By Dave Hogan
of The Oregonian staff
Dozens of marijuana growers from Oregon are expected to receive an early release from federal prison next month, thanks to a change in the way marijuana sentences are calculated.
The change will be retroactive and affect federal drug cases across the nation dating back to November 1989. This could reduce the sentences of many other prisoners.
In all, court officials in Portland and Eugene are reviewing the cases of about 150 prison inmates to determine just how many will go free early, said David Looney, chief probation officer in Portland.
Approximately 950 cases around the country are being reviewed by federal authorities.
"All I can say right now is a whole lot of people are going to get out of prison," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Leslie Baker in Portland.
She said that in her 17 years as a prosecutor she had never seen a change that affected such a large number of prisoners' sentencings.
The expected freeing of inmates was cheered Thursday by people such as Lorraine Heller of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
The group, who slogan is "Let the punishment fit the crime," has been lobbying for reductions in prison terms for marijuana-growing and other drug crimes.
"This is our first real victory," said Heller, whose son spent two years behind bars for growing marijuana in Oregon. "This is just a tiny step."
The change stems from an amendment to federal sentencing guidelines that will take effect Nov. 1 if Congress does not move to block it before then.
Bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate that would block proposed changes in sentencing calculations for crack cocaine and money laundering crimes.
Nothing, however, is in the works to block the marijuana changes, according to staff for the Senate and House judiciary committees. So, prosecutors, defense attorneys and court officials all say they expect the marijuana amendment to take effect Nov. 1.
"There hasn't been any indication to date that I'm aware of that Congress is going to do anything about it," said Looney.
Since the U.S. Sentencing Commission in Washington, D.C., voted to make the marijuana change retroac-
Please turn to Guidelines
MARIJUANA, Page A14
Federal sentencing guidelines
will be revised Nov. 1 affecting
sentences for growing marijuana. At
least dozens of inmates from Oregon
are expected to be released from
prison because of the amended
guidelines, which are retroactive to
Under old guidelines:
1 marijuana plant = 1,000 grams
(over 49 plants)
Under amended guidelines:
1 plant = 100 grams
(any number of plants)
tive, it applies to approximately 950 marijuana-growing cases nationally.
The change will have particular significance in the Northwest, which is one of the nation's centers for marijuana growing and has a high percentage of the cases affected by the new sentencing calculations.
In federal court, marijuana growers are sentenced on the basis of a formula that takes the number of plants cultivated and multiplies that by a number of grams.
To understand the formula, imagine a bag or brick of marijuana weighing 1,000 grams, which is called a kilogram and is equal to 2.2 pounds.
Under that formula, a person caught growing 10 plants was sentenced as if he or she were caught with that same quantity of 1,000 grams of marijuana, or 100 grams for each of the 10 plants.
But if a person were caught growing 50 or more plants, he or she was sentenced as if each of those plants equaled 1,000 grams of marijuana.
The sentencing commission decided this summer, however, that 1,000 grams was more than the amount of the drug produced by a marijuana plant. They noted that studies on marijuana-growing reported that the plants yield from 37.5 to 412 grams of marijuana per plant.
They concluded that it was best to calculate sentences based on 100 grams per marijuana plant, except where the actual weight of the usable marijuana was greater.
"To enhance fairness and consistency, this amendment adopts the
It's wonderful for the
persons convicted and
their families that they're
getting out early. But for
the people who have
already served their
sentences, there's not much
in the way of a remedy.
They've already served the
Stephen R. Sady,
chief federal public defender
Approximately 365 people have been sentenced on federal marijuana charges in Oregon since November 1989, including a small number who faced marijuana-smuggling charges.
About 150 of those remain in custody and may gain freedom or at least a reduction in their prison term under the new guidelines.
Baker said that on average, the marijuana sentences are expected to be cut approximately in half. "A rough guess is it's going to be somewhere between 45 and 60 percent.
The average prison term for all marijuana defendants sentenced last year was about four years, according to the sentencing commission.
The overwhelming majority of those are people who were first-time offenders or had very minor criminal records, said Stephen R. Sady, chief federal public defender for Oregon.
Sady said the sentencing commission realized that the guidelines were resulting in longer sentences than were necessary to achieve the purposes of sentencing, but it comes too late for some people.
"It's wonderful for the persons convicted and their families that they're getting out early. But for the people who have already served their sentences, there's not much in the way of a remedy. They've already served the time."
He said his office was working with the U.S. Attorney's Office and probation officials in hopes of smoothing the way for inmates to be released next month.
"We're doing everything possible to make sure that people who should be released will be released as quickly as possible," Sady said.
Heller said she and others were cautiously optimistic that marijuana growers would be released from prison next month.
People in prison don't want to get their hopes up because they've had them dashed so many times," she said.
Dave Hogan covers federal courts for The Oregonian's Crime, Justice & Public Safety Team. He may be reached by telephone at 221-8202 or by fax at 294-5009.
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