Former Charlotte mayor and felon Patrick Cannon, who will begin a 44-month sentence next week, could serve less than half that time at his West Virginia prison.
Federal guidelines boast of “truth in sentencing” – that the prison time handed down by a judge is the time served.
Yet in Cannon’s case, the truth of the matter is this: A series of incentives available to all federal inmates means the 47-year-old Democrat could be back in his Charlotte home or a nearby halfway house in less than two years.
On Tuesday – five months after he pleaded guilty to a corruption charge that carries a maximum sentence of 20 years and a $250,000 fine – Cannon will walk through the front gate of the minimum-security Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown.
Given Cannon’s lack of a criminal past, federal sentencing guidelines set his recommended punishment at four to five years. Cannon’s attorneys argued in court last month for 18 months. Prosecutors, citing Cannon’s cooperation, recommended a little more than twice that time.
Given Cannon’s crime – the mayor admitted accepting more than $50,000 in bribes from undercover FBI agents and a Charlotte strip club owner – U.S. District Judge Frank Whitney found both recommendations too lenient. He set Cannon’s penalty at three years and eight months.
Yet, if Cannon follows prison rules, and is accepted into and completes the alcohol treatment program for which he’s been recommended, he’ll remain in federal custody closer to two years. And his stay in Morgantown could be even shorter.
In fact, he could be out of prison by fall 2016. Here’s how:
• Federal prisons shave 54 days off an inmate’s sentence for every year of good behavior. In Cannon’s case, that means a potential overall cut of more than a half a year – or about 198 days – from his time.
• As with many white-collar criminals, Cannon has requested help for a drug problem – in his case, alcohol. FCI Morgantown offers the Residential Drug Abuse Program, or RDAP, the most intensive treatment available in the federal prison system. It lasts nine months. If Cannon completes the program, he can cut another year off his sentence.
• Cannon’s keepers could also recommend him for more than four months’ stay (10 percent of his sentence) in a halfway house near Charlotte as a transitional bridge to normal life. They could even recommend that he spend part or all of that time under home confinement.
• Federal law also contains what is known as a Rule 35 motion, which can be used to reward felons who assist investigations. Prosecutors can ask the court to cut a sentence after defendants have begun their punishments. Given the lukewarm tones U.S. Attorney Anne Tompkins and others used in court last month to describe Cannon’s help, this reduction appears unlikely.
Cannon’s sentence also includes a $10,000 fine and two years of supervised release.
Tompkins’ office declined to answer questions Tuesday about Cannon’s sentence.
Charlotte’s other best known example of political corruption followed a similar timeline.
In 1999, former Mecklenburg Elections Director Bill Culp was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison for accepting more than $134,000 in kickbacks and bribes in a decade-long voting machine scheme.
During his sentencing, Culp claimed that an addiction to marijuana had clouded his judgment, an assertion that prosecutors openly derided in court.
Nonetheless, Culp was admitted into a treatment program and earned his good-conduct discounts. After 14 months, he was transferred to a Charlotte halfway house.
Then-U.S. Attorney Mark Calloway called the move “a significant and unwarranted reduction” in Culp’s punishment.
“It’s difficult enough to get prison time for somebody in a business suit who commits a breach of the public trust,” the prosecutor said. “It undermines the public’s confidence in the criminal justice system.”
After six months at the halfway house, Culp was freed. He then served two years of supervised release. Culp also had to pay a $50,000 fine.
Officials with FCI Morgantown have not replied to requests for interviews since court officials announced last week that Cannon will report there.
Chris Burke, a spokesman for the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, says federal inmates generally can be expected to serve 85 percent of their sentences.
In Cannon’s case, successful completion of RDAP would lower that further.
Burke says his agency is aware that claiming a psychological problem or drug addiction is a popular way for white-collar criminals to explain away their misdeeds and potentially reduce their sentences.
As a result, Cannon and any inmate seeking RDAP treatment must undergo what Burke described as a rigorous medical assessment starting shortly after they enter prison. There is usually a long waiting list for available RDAP spots, and inmates must have at least 24 months left on their sentences to be considered.
Charlotte attorney Claire Rauscher, a former federal public defender, says acceptance into a treatment program is not a formality.
“This is a difficult one. Quite frankly, there has to be more than just saying in court that you have a problem,” she says. “And there are no guarantees that you can stay in. ... Unfortunately, I had a client who made a comment that he really didn’t have a problem, and they kicked him out.”
Burke, the prison spokesman, says the agency will post Cannon’s expected date of release within two weeks of his admission. It will include all his good-behavior deductions from the start as an incentive for Cannon to follow the rules. Any breach extends his release date.
Cannon is the first mayor in the city’s history to be sent to prison, and his 44-month sentence drew criticism from those who believe he got off lightly. That he may serve less than half that sentence will stir even more debate.
Yet, George Washington University law professor Randall Eliason, one of the country’s foremost experts on sentencing, says Cannon is benefiting from a system put in place so all federal inmates are treated as equally as possible.
“It’s much better than it used to be,” the former federal prosecutor says. “Twenty years ago, there were no fixed numbers. Case by case, there were huge variations. Judges would think ‘I really think he should serve 10 years, but they’ll parole him in six, and so maybe I should give him 15.’ ”
Today, the sentences and variations are spelled out in the law and prison policies, Eliason says, so everybody should have a clearer idea of what a felon will serve.