ST. LOUIS — Ronald Brewster doesn't shy away from the truth: He was guilty of the crack cocaine conspiracy that sent him to federal prison in 1996.
What Brewster never understood was the 12-year sentence that seemed unduly harsh considering it was his first offense, and considering those dealing powdered cocaine typically got shorter sentences.
"I argued that at my trial in 1995 and it went nowhere," Brewster said today. "Crack is no different than powder."
In December, the U.S. Sentencing Commission retroactively changed federal sentencing guidelines for crack-related crimes to bring them in line with guidelines for federal crimes involving powdered cocaine.
The new guidelines went into effect in March and Brewster was released from a federal prison in Tennessee. Within days, he found work in his hometown of St. Louis.
"I made up my mind in the 12 years I was in there I would come out and try to get me a job, and I got one," Brewster, 57, said. "I used to cut meat and that's what I'm doing now."
Federal authorities believe that up to 20,000 inmates convicted of crack offenses may see their prison terms reduced under the new guidelines. Already, the U.S. Probation Office covering eastern Missouri has received nearly 600 petitions from federal prisoners, asking that their terms either be shortened or ended. It's up to a judge to decide if a prisoner merits early release.
Doug Burris, chief U.S. probation officer for eastern Missouri, said sentences for about 125 eastern Missouri cases have been reduced. Of those, about 40 inmates have been released, including Brewster.
Burris said the estimate of 20,000 inmates may be conservative.
"Overall the numbers are substantially larger than what the sentencing commission had projected," he said.
A spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons said more than 3,800 petitions seeking early release have been filed through April 9. Officials with western Missouri's U.S. Probation Office also did not respond to interview requests.
Previously, a person with one gram of crack would receive the same sentence as someone with 100 grams of the powdered form of cocaine. The disparity has been decried as racially discriminatory, since four of every five crack defendants in the U.S. are black, while most powdered-cocaine convictions involve whites.
Burris said he is among those who support the guideline change.
"We don't see that crack is 100 times more dangerous than powdered cocaine, and that's what sentencing law is based on," Burris said.
But some county prosecutors in Missouri worry about suddenly releasing scores of former crack dealers.
"I hate to see people who were doing these things back on the street early because most of them weren't simply possession, they were sales or intent to sell," Franklin County prosecutor Bob Parks said. "They're just going to be back out there doing what they were doing."
Andrew Lawson, who prosecutes drug cases in Scott, New Madrid and Mississippi counties, told the Sikeston Standard Democrat, "I think southeast Missouri is going to see a lot of the old faces that were put away for crack cocaine."
Burris disagrees, and cited statistics showing that contrary to what many believe, crack-related criminals are no more violent than those convicted for powdered cocaine offenses.
"I found the vast majority of these people want to prove they have been worthy of a second chance," Burris said.
For Brewster, who is black, the early release was barely early. He was due out in July. Now, he's catching up with time lost with his children and lamenting the big chunk of his life spent away from family.
"I lost my mother and my father while I was in prison," Brewster said. "Now that I'm out, you just try and fit into society and do the best you can."