SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Antwain Black was facing a few more years in Leavenworth for dealing crack. But on Tuesday, he returned home to Illinois, a free man.
Black, 36, was among the first of potentially thousands of inmates who are being released early from federal prison because of an easing of the harsh penalties for crack that were enacted in the 1980s, when the drug was a terrifying new phenomenon in America's cities.
"I did more than enough time," Black said outside his family's Springfield, Ill., home, where family and friends had gathered to celebrate over dinner. "I feel like I can win this time. I'm a better man today than I was then."
The 1980s-era federal laws punished crack-related crimes much more severely than those involving powdered cocaine – a practice criticized as racially discriminatory because most of those convicted of crack offenses were black.
More recently, the penalties for crack were reduced to bring them more in line with those for powder, and Tuesday was the first day inmates locked up under the old rules could get out early.
Some 12,000 prisoners are expected to benefit from reduced sentences over the next several years, with an estimated 1,900 eligible for immediate release as of Tuesday. On average, inmates will get three years shaved off their sentences. The reductions do not apply to people found guilty of crack offenses under state laws.
Black said like many of his peers, he started smoking crack in high school and began selling it partly to support his habit. He said he was a low-level dealer and that he didn't realize the mandatory minimum sentence he faced when he pleaded guilty in 2003 and was given a 15-year prison term.
With changes in the law, good behavior and credit for time served in jail, he was freed from the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kan., after 8 1/2 years locked up for the crime. His projected release had been Oct. 3, 2013.
"I didn't think it was fair and I still don't think it's fair now," Black said. "I know guys who aren't coming home, still, because of these laws that were placed upon a certain race of people," he said.
Kentucky inmate Darryl Flood, 48, thought he would have to wait until 2013 to get out of prison, more than a decade after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute crack. But on Monday a judge approved his release two years ahead of schedule.
Susan Cardwell, his sister in Haymarket, Va., said she was expecting him to arrive on a bus on Wednesday. She said she cried after getting a call from his lawyer with the news.
"He wants to get out, get a job and get his life back together," she said in a telephone interview. "He says he'll work two jobs if he has to."
Under the old system, a person convicted of crack possession got the same mandatory prison term as someone with 100 times the amount of powdered cocaine. Five grams of crack, about the weight of five packets of Sweet N'Low, brought a mandatory five years; it took 500 grams of powder to get the same sentence.
The law was seen as racially unfair because blacks made up the majority of people convicted of crack crimes, while whites were more likely to be found guilty of offenses involving powdered cocaine.
In 2010, Congress reduced the disparity in sentences for future cases. Last summer, the U.S. Sentencing Commission decided to apply the measure to inmates doing time under the old rules.
Chris Burke, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said that he could not say exactly how many people would be let out Tuesday but that officials were working around the clock to process hundreds of orders from judges granting early release. In certain cases, prison officials have been given a grace period of several days to free inmates, Burke said.
The releases are the result of months of work by prosecutors, public defenders and judges across the country. Inmates' requests for sentence reductions were decided on a case-by-case basis, with courts taking into consideration such factors as the prisoner's behavior behind bars and threat to society.
In San Antonio, the federal public defender's office reported that it had about 15 to 20 inmates eligible for immediate release. In St. Louis, the office said it submitted 30 to 50 petitions asking for inmates to be set free right away.
In the eastern district of Virginia, which has the highest number of affected inmates anywhere in the country, public defender Michael Nachmanoff said that judges had ordered the immediate release of about 75 people.
Black, who earned a high school equivalency diploma and college credits behind bars, likes to cook and hopes to open a restaurant.
"It's a blessing just to see them smile, for me to be home" he said, referring to the friends and family who welcomed him home. "It lets me know I am loved. It's been a long ride, too. It's been a while. They held fast for me. I've got a lot of people counting on me so I've got to fly right this time."
Jessica Gresko contributed from Washington.