A respite from crack sentences

Gwen Lyda, 58, with her granddaughter, Jade Lyda, 6, after picking her up recently from a friend’s house in Washington, D.C. Jade's father, Jerone "Jay" Lyda, 27, Lyda's son, has been incarcerated for possession of crack cocaine for the past three years with four years still to go.

The Associated Press
Published: Thursday, January 3, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 2, 2008 at 4:59 p.m.

Karen Garrison hasn’t celebrated Christmas in years. There was no point, since neither of her twin sons was there to celebrate with her.

But for the first time in a long time, she actually got a gift this holiday season — hope.

Thanks to a decision in mid-December by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, her sons could have their prison terms for crack cocaine offenses reduced, and one of them could actually be home for the holidays this year.

‘‘We can get back to doing the things we used to do,’’ said the Washington, D.C., woman, whose sons were jailed in 1998. ‘‘I can just plan some kind of life.’’

The Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow some 19,500 federal inmates — most of them black, like Garrison’s sons — to seek reductions in their crack sentences. The easing of the penalties could reunite numerous black families torn apart by long prison terms.

‘‘We know that people in poor neighborhoods, people of color have really borne the brunt of our drug policies,’’ said Carole Shapiro, executive director of Family Justice, an advocacy group.

For years, critics have decried the way federal sentencing laws and guidelines come down harder on crack than on powdered cocaine. Those convicted of crack offenses receive much longer sentences for far smaller amounts of drugs.

Four of every five crack defendants are black, while powdered-cocaine defendants are largely white.

‘‘It’s going to have significant impact on a lot of families who have lost spouses, children, brothers and sisters for very long periods of time,’’ said Ryan King, policy analyst with the Sentencing Project, which pushes for changes in the criminal justice system.

Starting in March, eligible federal prisoners can apply for reductions in their sentences. All applications will have a court hearing, with a judge deciding on a case-by-case basis if a reduction should be granted. The Sentencing Commission said the average reduction is likely to be just over two years.

Nearly 10 percent of the eligible inmates could be released in March, and the commission said almost half could be out by the end of 2010.

The Justice Department strongly opposed the changes, saying they will cause many problems, especially for communities not ready to receive crack offenders. But for many, the decision could be the answer to their prayers.

Gwen Lyda, a 58-year-old administrative assistant from Oxon Hill, Md., has been raising her 6-year-old granddaughter, Jade, ever since her son, Jerone Lyda, was sentenced to nine years on a crack conviction in 2004. She is hoping for a sentence reduction that could bring him home a year and a half earlier.

‘‘It has really been hard. I try not to let him know how hard it is,’’ she said. ‘‘I don’t want him to feel guilty about the situation we’re in.’’

She tries to keep her son connected to his family, taking Jade to see him and sending him photographs and her report cards. Every night, Jade’s prayers end the same way — with a plea to God to keep her daddy safe and bring him home.

‘‘To know how many people this has been affecting for such a long time, something should have been done a long time ago,’’ said Lyda, who is black. ‘‘Because it’s a primarily person of color situation, that’s why it has taken so long. They can do whatever to people of color because we don’t count.’’

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