Robert Antonio Carter walks out of a halfway house in Hutchins, Texas, Friday morning, one of about 6,000 prisoners whose long drug sentences are being reduced, but not before he spent 21 years in prison for cooking crack and selling it along the Texas-Oklahoma border.
Carter, 50, will live with a sister or a brother in Dallas — he still did not know Thursday afternoon which house had been approved by authorities — and he said he was anxious to hug his family and meet all of the nieces and nephews he did not know.
His oldest son is now a lawyer and 28, the age he was when a friend asked for his help making crack from powdered cocaine in Sherman, Texas. He had a job at a furniture store and used the drug money to pay some of his and his family’s bills, he said.
“It was to help me make extra money and basically survive,” he said. “I wasn’t into the cars or jewelry, the house, the clothes and stuff like that. That wasn’t my thing. My whole thing was to try to survive. I paid my bills on time.”
But in 1994 he got arrested, was charged with cocaine trafficking then sentenced to 30 years in federal prison. The youngest of his five children was born after he began serving his term. Selling drugs was wrong but his sentence was out of proportion to what he did, he said.
“I can see if I went out there with an AK-47 and shot a place up,” he said. “I can see if I went out there and I was selling drugs and hitting people in the face with guns and kicking people’s doors in and turning the whole neighborhood into a war zone. But that wasn’t it.”
The prison release is part of an attempt to lessen overcrowding and ease the tough penalties that non-violent drug dealers received beginning in the mid-1980s.
Last year, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, an independent judicial agency, reduced the sentences for many non-violent drug crimes, and agreed to the new penalties being applied retroactively. Inmates sentenced under the old guidelines became eligible to apply to federal judges for the reductions, but their releases were delayed so that the Bureau of Prisons could prepare. No prisoners were to be officially freed from custody until now, causing a bubble in the number of prisoners being released.
The 6,000 are the first of 13,187 prisoners whose applications have been approved. Texas is the state with the highest number of reduced sentences. Up to 46,000 prisoners could eventually be released early.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average number of inmates returning to any one state is 80, with larger states receiving more than smaller ones. That figure does not include non-citizens -- a third of the inmates being released. They are being turned over to immigration officials for potential deportation.
The sentence reductions were not automatic. Judges considered public safety when deciding whether to approve an inmate's application. In San Diego, for example, where the Federal Defenders of San Diego reviewed 1,200 cases, inmates who were successful were non-violent, mostly first-time drug offenders, said Michael Marks, a public defender with the office.
Another man who will formally leave federal custody on Friday is Michael Higgins, a former Cleveland elementary school teacher who was sentenced in 2005 to 14 years in federal prison for leading a methamphetamine conspiracy in Ohio. His partner, Marteeastaye Edwards, whom he called Marcco, got 12.5 years. Then four years ago while they were separated, Edwards died from a pulmonary embolism.
“Making these bad decisions to use drugs and then sell drugs cost me 10 years of freedom and it cost me my soulmate,” Higgins said.
The couple headed a nationwide drug ring that sold methamphetamine and Ecstasy across northeast Ohio. Higgins, who left prison in May for a halfway house and then an ankle bracelet, said he regretted the harm he did to the people whom he sold drugs to and their families. One woman died as she was returning to Cleveland with a shipment of drugs for the ring, according to an article from The Associated Press. She swallowed a bag of methamphetamine when a police officer stopped the car she was a passenger in and the bag burst.
As a leader of the conspiracy, HIggins knew he would have to serve some time, but his sentence was too long, he said. He and the others were not violent, he said. He did not have a weapon.
“We don’t need a crazy amount of time to get the message that what we did was wrong,” he said. “Being away from your loved ones is probably the hardest thing in the world and that kind of time is just too much. We incarcerate more than any other nation in the world by far.”
Higgins, who is living with his mother and step-father, said he started taking drugs in 1998 on weekends — methamphetamine, Ecstasy, cocaine, the anesthetic ketamine and the club drug GHB or gamma hydroxybutyrate — and eventually sold them to support his addiction and lifestyle. He lost his teaching license two years before the federal indictment when he was arrested on state charges. A judge gave him probation, but he continued to deal drugs.
At the beginning of 2005, he and Edwards opened an antique shop in Cleveland. He concedes that it was a way to launder their drug profits but says they also wanted to stop selling drugs.
“We wanted to go legit,” he said. “We really did and that was one step in that direction.”
Instead on April 14 they were arrested. They were imprisoned together for the first two years but once they were sentenced they were separated. They wrote twice a week every week until Edwards died in 2011.
“I’ve got hundreds of letters from him in boxes,” Higgins said. “We were very, very, very close. So it was pretty awful.”
Kevin Ring, the director of strategic initiatives at Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Washington, D.C., said the prisoner releases were part of a shift toward shortening sentences for non-violent drug offenders who could be better off getting drug treatment and jobs.
Congress has been considering bills that would reform mandatory minimum sentencing. States, meanwhile, have already been passing sentencing reform and reinvesting money spent incarcerating non-violent drug offenders in prison programming or law enforcement needs, he said.
"But either way thinking they can get a bigger bang for their buck doing those types of things instead of just building more prisons and holding more non-violent offenders," he said.
The reductions are very modest, averaging less than two years for most people, and sentences for drug offenders in the United States remain long, he said.
Federal prisons are at about 40 percent over capacity and for drug offenders who need treatment, that means long waiting lists. Inmates often do not get treatment until just before they are released, he said.
"It's another reason why we want to get the population at a more reasonable level,” he said.
Once out they are ineligible for some kinds of federal programs, like housing assistance for example, because of their felony convictions, he said. Employers are often unwilling to hire any felons, though Wal-Mart, Target, Koch Industries Inc. and others have joined a movement called “ban the box” and have stopped asking job applicants whether they have ever been convicted of a crime.
Carter, who moved to Texas from Chicago as a child, said he did not use crack himself. He was an athlete, playing basketball and football, which helped to keep him away from the drugs that were all around him in his neighborhood.
“I just should have been stronger,” he said. “Mentally I wasn’t strong enough as I am now.”
While he was in prison, he tried to better himself, taking classes, reading and studying. He drove a fork-lift for 17 years in prison and hopes it will help him find a job now. He has worked his entire life and if he has to get two or three jobs, he will, he said.
“I accepted my fate, I did my time,” he said. “I’m back in society trying to better my life as best as I possibly can.”
Proponents of reducing the number of Americans in prison got support from an unexpected corner last week — the newly created Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. The group, which met with President Barack Obama, is made up of 130 police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors and includes the police chiefs in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Sending too many people to prison for drug and non-violent offenses can start a cycle of incarceration and waste money that could be focused on violent criminals, the group said.
“Incarceration turns people’s lives upside down, hurts the communities they belong to, and costs taxpayers an astonishing $80 billion per year — all while doing little to reduce crime,” it said in its statement of principles.
But a second group of law enforcement officers, the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys, in a July report criticized proposed sentencing reforms.
“These legislative proposals, including one euphemistically named the ‘Smart Sentencing Act,’ would slash federal minimum sentences for trafficking in all dangerous drugs by at least half and would make thousands of federal prisoners convicted of serious drug trafficking crimes eligible for early release without regard to their criminal history, violent background, or ties to gangs, drug trafficking organizations, or even international drug trafficking cartels,” it wrote in “The Dangerous Myths of Drug Sentencing ‘Reform.’”
Higgins was able to get drug treatment in prison but once out had difficulty finding a job. When he applied online, he got no response, he said. Finally an Italian restaurant in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville hired him as a waiter and then second restaurant in Cleveland’s downtown.
He hopes to teach again, at the university level, and therefore plans to pursue a doctorate. During his last five years in prison at a minimum security camp in Cumberland, Maryland, he helped dozens of men get their high school equivalency degree, a GED, and at least made a difference in their lives, he said.
“I’m just so blessed and happy to be out early and be with all my friends and family again,” he said.
Candice Nguyen contributed to this article.