- Associated Press - Thursday, April 14, 2016

FARGO, N.D. (AP) - Sixteen months after Congress ordered a retroactive review and reduction of federal drug sentences, officials in North Dakota and South Dakota are close to completing the task.

Amendment 782 of the federal sentencing guidelines took effect in November 2014 and is meant to reduce overcrowding in federal prisons, where more than 200,000 offenders are currently housed in more than 300 facilities. Most of the reductions have involved mandatory minimum sentences and been recalculated based on drug quantities.

Prosecutors and public defenders told The Associated Press on Thursday that South Dakota is down to a couple of cases remaining. There are about 40 left in North Dakota.

“I challenged staff here to get all these done in a year and they will get incredibly close,” said Neil Fulton, head of the public defender’s office for the Dakotas. “Like all good North and South Dakotans, we pulled up our boots and got to work.”

U.S. Sentencing Commission statistics show that North Dakota had ruled on 182 motions and South Dakota on 152 through March 25. Reductions were granted in 99 percent of the North Dakota cases and 77 percent of the South Dakota ones. The average reductions have been 27 months in North Dakota and 26 months in South Dakota.

The work was done without any additional money from the federal government. Fulton took dollars out of his own budget and hired a paralegal to organize and review documents. Otherwise the work was done by existing staff attorneys.

“One of the things that made it so difficult, is it placed a lot of additional burden on all the U.S attorneys, probation officers, public defenders and so on,” said Brett Shasky, an assistant U.S. attorney who handled the cases in North Dakota. “We had to find time among our regular duties to fit this in.”

Kevin Koliner, an assistant U.S. attorney and appellate chief from South Dakota, said another challenge was going through files that were 10 years old or more.

“Oftentimes these are cases that were prosecuted by someone who is no longer at our office and defended by a defense lawyer who is no longer in practice,” Koliner said.

However, attorneys who would normally be arguing over the length of sentences had few disagreements during this process, according to Fulton and the prosecutors. Public defenders and prosecutors went through a practice run a few years ago on crack cocaine sentences and had what Koliner called a “really kind of a slick process” to give each case the attention it deserved without much litigation.

“Frankly, I think that’s what the administration had in mind with this process,” Koliner said.

Nationwide, nearly 27,000 offenders have been granted sentence reductions. Of those, 31 percent have been for methamphetamine convictions, 28 percent for powder cocaine, 20 percent for crack cocaine, 9 percent for marijuana, 7 percent for heroin and 5 percent for other drugs.

“The amendment achieved its stated purpose,” Fulton said. “It reduced drug sentences across the board to some degree.”

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