Monday :: Dec 10, 2007

Supreme Court strikes down mandatory sentences for crack cocaine


by Turkana

The Supreme Court, today, struck down mandatory sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. The Washington Post reports:

The Supreme Court decided today that judges may impose lighter sentences for crack cocaine, adding its voice to a racially sensitive debate over federal guidelines that call for tougher penalties for crack than for powder cocaine.

The crack cocaine decision was one of two today in which the justices, with identical seven-member majorities, reinforced their view that federal sentencing guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, and that judges may deviate from them so long as their decisions are reasonable.

In the crack case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was reasonable for a federal judge in Virginia to impose a lower sentence than one prescribed by the guidelines because of his disagreement with the rule that imposed the same sentence for a crack dealer as for someone selling 100 times as much powder cocaine. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said the law did not allow the judge to make such a determination.

Of course, there was a clear racial component to the sentencing disparity, as crack is most often used by blacks, and powder cocaine by whites. On that level, this is clearly a huge step in the right direction. The victory is, however, complicated. I'm no lawyer, but here are some of the best commentaries, thus far:

Bean, at Lawyers, Gun$ and Money:

The decision today was in a crack sentencing case; it provides hope that more and more judges will be able to show their disdain for the crack/cocaine disparity. But as Hogan and I both noted in comments to Scott's post, Gall and Kimbrough should not be understood as paving the way to the end of the war on (some classes of people who use some) drugs.

Baylor Law Prof Mark W. Osler offers his winners and losers, at ScotusBlog:

While the result in Kimbrough is certainly encouraging to many judges, practitioners, and academics, the opinion is more complex than it might at first appear. In short, Kimbrough seems to be good news for fans of the parsimony provision of 18 U.S.C. ยง 3553(a), bad news for fans of judicial transparency, and an announcement that the conflict over a remedy in Booker may not be resolved.

Ohio State Law Prof Douglas A. Berman gives a Justice-by-Justice review, at Sentencing, Law and Policy:

There is so much to say about the substance of the rulings in Gall and Kimbrough (basics here), and I will likely need a few days to unpack all the important particulars. Here I want to do a quick Justice-by-Justice review what we see in Gall and Kimbrough, in part because I think it could foreshadow the Court's work on any number of future sentencing issues.

Read the decisions, in pdf:

Kimbraugh v. United States.

Gall v. United States.

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