Major prisoner release in works

Posted: Wednesday December 26, 2012, 2:34 PM>

By Brad Heath / USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Justice Department review has identified at least 175 federal prisoners who must be released or resentenced because they have been locked up improperly.

The review, which followed a USA TODAY investigation, found that some of those prisoners shouldn't have been imprisoned because they hadn't committed a federal crime. Others received sentences vastly longer than the law allows.

The problems stem from a misunderstanding about which North Carolina state convictions were serious enough to outlaw gun possession or require extended prison sentences under federal law. The number of prisoners ultimately freed or given shorter sentences is likely to be higher than 175 because the examination by federal prosecutors was confined to the smallest of North Carolina's three U.S. court districts. Justice Department spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said "many more" cases could be upended when all are reviewed.

USA TODAY's investigation in June identified 60 people imprisoned even though a U.S. appeals court said what they had done was not a federal crime. Still, Justice Department lawyers did almost nothing to notify prisoners — many unaware they were innocent — and asked federal judges to keep them locked up anyway. The department reversed that position in August.

Since then, federal judges have ordered the government to free at least 32 prisoners, and have taken 12 more off post-prison supervision, court records show. Some had served up to eight years before they were freed.

"That's a huge number," said University of San Francisco law professor Richard Leo. He said it is uncommon for any federal convictions to be overturned, let alone for so many involving a single issue.