WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A pending early release of hundreds of crack-cocaine dealers whose sentences have been judged unfairly harsh threatens to cause more crime in U.S. cities, Attorney General Michael Mukasey warned on Thursday.
But some mayors said Mukasey was exaggerating the threat and described the real problem as a lack of federal assistance for programs aimed at helping ex-convicts return to society.
Mukasey told the U.S. Conference of Mayors about 1,600 convicted criminals -- "many of them violent gang members" -- may be released as early as March under a decision by the U.S. agency that sets sentencing guidelines for federal crimes.
"A sudden influx of criminals from federal prison into your communities could lead to a surge in new victims with a tragic but predictable result," Mukasey said.
But Kevin Burns, the mayor of North Miami, Florida, said Mukasey seemed to be "striking fear" and it was most likely that only non-violent offenders would be released early.
"I think it was possibly overstating it a bit," Burns told Reuters after the speech.
The attorney general also announced President George W. Bush would seek $200 million in his 2009 budget request on February 4 for a new program to help local governments fight violent crime and gangs by working with federal agencies.
That represents an increase from about $74 million for similar efforts in 2007. Congress did not fund the administration's request for 2008.
The U.S. Sentencing Commission last month made retroactive its earlier reduction in recommended sentences for crack dealing, which is punished more harshly than similar offenses involving powder cocaine.
Critics say the sentence disparities passed in response to a violent crack epidemic have unfairly punished blacks, who account for most federal crack convictions, while whites are more likely to be arrested on powder cocaine charges. The sentencing commission called the disparities "unwarranted."
NEED FOR EX-CONVICT PROGRAMS
The Bush administration has opposed the retroactive reductions, which take effect March 3 and would allow people already convicted to seek term reductions from the sentencing judge.
The administration argues that applications will clog the courts and early releases will return dangerous criminals to the streets. The reductions will apply to about 20,000 federal crack offenders, and an estimated 2,500 of these will become eligible during 2008 to seek early release.
Some mayors said they agreed with reducing cocaine sentence disparities but shared concerns over early releases. The biggest problem is a lack of programs to help ex-convicts, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Mayor Bill Finch said.
"A lot of these people feel like society has thrown them on the trash heap," he told Reuters. "The more we get tough on crime, the more we fill these prisons up, the more we create a balloon at the end that becomes the cities' problem."
Mukasey acknowledged a need for education, job training, drug treatment and housing to help ex-offenders, but said these may be unavailable for the early-release crack prisoners.
"We need time to develop all of that and roll it out, time that blanket retroactivity might not allow us," he said.
(Editing by Eric Beech)