Court gives judges leeway to be lenient
Updated 12/10/2007 7:51 PM | Comments190 (external - login to view)
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By Mikki K. Harris, USA TODAY
The Supreme Court today broadened judicial discretion in two separate cases, including one focused on prison terms for crack cocaine offenses.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court boosted judges' discretion to impose lenient criminal sentences Monday, including the option to set shorter terms for crack cocaine offenses.
By a 7-2 vote, the court said judges are not bound by U.S. Sentencing Guidelines that require sentences for crack cocaine crimes to be punished more harshly than offenses involving powder cocaine.
DETAILS: Read the opinion (Kimbrough v. U.S.) (external - login to view)
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The great disparity has long been controversial because stiffer crack penalties have fallen disproportionately on low-level and black defendants.
A second 7-2 decision in a separate drug case reinforced the court's recent trend of giving judges greater leeway across the board in setting prison time. The rulings loosen the yoke of the Sentencing Guidelines on judges.
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The significance of the opinion lies in the latitude it gives trial judges to assess the particular factors of a defendant's case. Although the court majority emphasized the lack of grounds for the disparate treatment of crack and powder offenders, it did not change basic criminal laws on the books that treat crack and powder crimes differently.
Justice Samuel Alito, who with Clarence Thomas dissented in both cases, noted that the guidelines were enacted in the mid-1980s to make sentences more uniform. "Sentencing disparities will gradually increase" for similar crimes by similar defendants, Alito warned.
Defendants' rights advocates, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, cheered the court's action, particularly for giving judges leeway on the crack-powder differential. "I think it's a watershed for drug sentencing," said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project. Boyd said the decision could add momentum to proposals at the Sentencing Commission and in Congress to reduce crack-powder disparities.
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, an intricate set of directives tied to a defendant's crime and background, had required that a trafficker dealing crack be subject to the same sentence as a person dealing 100 times more powder cocaine. That 100-1 difference was narrowed slightly Nov. 1, so the guidelines have a powder-crack ratio that varies, depending on the offense, from 25-1 to 80-1.
The Sentencing Commission is scheduled to vote today on whether to apply the narrower ratios retroactively. The ratios could mean the early release of 19,500 inmates over the next 30 years.
Monday's decision allows trial judges to discard the guidelines' differential altogether if a situation warrants it. Writing for the majority, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said a trial judge may "conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack-powder disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary."
Ginsburg noted that the Sentencing Commission adopted the differential in the 1980s, when crack emerged on the streets and Congress saw it as more likely than powder to be linked to violence and addiction. She noted that research and data no longer support those assumptions about the relative harm of the two drugs.
The court decision reinstated a shorter prison sentence for Derrick Kimbrough, who was convicted in Virginia of selling crack and powder cocaine. A judge gave him a 15-year-sentence rather than the guidelines' sentence of 19-22 years. The judge based his decision in part on the long-standing controversy over the crack-powder disparity, along with Kimbrough's time in the Army during the Gulf War in 1991.
The Justice Department appealed the lower sentence. An appeals court ruled the judge improperly relied on the crack-powder dispute for leniency.
In reversing, Ginsburg noted that the Supreme Court had ruled in 2005 that the guidelines were to be considered "advisory," not mandatory as they originally were enacted. She said that advisory nature extends to the guidelines' treatment of crack and powder offenses.
Judges still must abide by so-called "mandatory minimum" drug laws that retain a 100-1 ratio for powder and crack offenses. Sentencing Commission statistics show that a majority of crack defendants get the mandatory minimum. Defendants such as Kimbrough fall into a remaining category of those who received even more time behind bars based on guidelines enhancements tied to crack quantity.