Dec 9, 2014
TAMPA — Grammy-winning reggae singer Buju Banton hopes recent changes in drug sentencing rules will get him out of prison early and back to his native Jamaica.
But the performer is likely out of luck.
Although more than 1,700 drug defendants sentenced in Tampa federal court have been identified as potential beneficiaries of a recent rollback in federal sentencing guidelines, the change won’t apply to most of those serving minimum mandatory sentences under the law.
Banton, whose legal name is Mark Myrie, is serving 10 years, the minimum mandatory sentence for his conviction on a charge of conspiracy to distribute cocaine.
The only ways to get around the minimum mandatory sentences would require defendants to cooperate with investigators or at least give a full confession to their crimes. Banton, who has steadfastly maintained his innocence, is unlikely to meet that requirement.
The Jamaican-born reggae star was convicted in February 2011, days after he won a Grammy award for his work titled “Before the Dawn.”
The singer was arrested in 2010 following a sting by the Drug Enforcement Administration at a Sarasota warehouse. Banton was targeted by investigators starting in July 2009 when, returning with his band from a European tour, he happened to sit next to an informant on a flight from Madrid to Miami. Authorities subsequently recorded numerous conversations in which the two men talked about drug trafficking.
Banton is serving his sentence in a prison run by Corrections Corporation of America in McRae, Georgia. He is scheduled for release in 2019. His case is on appeal.
In the meantime, he filed his own motion from prison asking to be released early under a recent change in federal drug sentencing guidelines, which the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided would be applied retroactively to inmates.
The federal probation office in the Middle District of Florida has identified 1,748 inmates originally sentenced in Tampa on drug charges as potentially eligible to benefit from the change, known as Drugs Minus 2, because it reduces sentencing guidelines for most drug offenses by two levels. If projections hold true, the average sentence of 11 years and 1 month will be reduced to nine years.
Those defendants will not be eligible for release until Nov. 1, 2015.
Chief Judge Anne C. Conway issued an order last month directing the probation office to identify inmates who may be eligible for early release under the change and to prepare reports in each case addressing the issues, including a proposed range for new sentences. Conway directed the Federal Public Defender’s Office to represent all inmates for this purpose unless there is a conflict of interest.
Probation officers are prioritising cases by their potential release dates, meaning those who are likely to be eligible for release first will be addressed first.
In the meantime, hundreds of inmates, like Banton, have tried to get their cases heard by filing their own motions with the court.
In his motion, Banton argues he should be sentenced to 92 months in prison under the new guidelines. He says he’s been “working in prison since his incarceration” and has “very good conduct’’ behind bars.
He asks that the court reduce his sentence and turn him over to immigration authorities so he can be deported back to Jamaica.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which implemented the change to the sentencing guidelines, says it cannot do anything about minimum mandatory sentences, which are spelled out in law. “Only Congress can change mandatory minimum penalties,” the commission says on its website.
Chief Probation Officer Joe Collins estimated 225 drug offenders sentenced in the Middle District of Florida may be eligible for release on Nov. 1, 2015. Of that group, 75 cases have been reviewed by probation officers, and 48 were originally sentenced in federal court in Tampa.
The former inmates all will have to serve a period of probation — known as supervised release — and Collins said his office is bracing for the increased workload, which he said will be 70 to 80 percent more than normal.
Attorneys with the public defender’s office say another retroactive change in how some sentences are calculated could shave significant time off the sentences of certain drug defendants sentenced in some jurisdictions, including the federal circuit that encompasses Florida.
Those defendants received credit for providing prosecutors with “substantial assistance,” or extensive cooperation. The Sentencing Commission ordered a change in how their sentences were calculated.
The public defender’s office hopes to file a motion in the case of one Tampa defendant, for example, who was convicted of possessing a small amount of drugs, according to federal defender attorney Conrad Kahn. But because he had two prior convictions for small drug amounts, he received a lengthy sentence, even though he was given credit for substantial assistance.
Kahn said the planned motion has the potential to reduce the defendant’s sentence by 17 or 18 years, allowing his immediate release after having served about seven years.
By Elaine Silvestrini | Tribune Staff