Sentencing discretion increased

2 Supreme Court decisions address penalty guidelines

December 11, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,SUN REPORTER

The Supreme Court gave federal judges latitude yesterday to impose shorter prison terms for crack cocaine-related crimes, part of a pair of decisions that allow judges, who were once tightly controlled by mandatory guidelines, to exercise broad discretion in sentencing.

The high court's decision arrived ahead of a vote today by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which will decide whether such sentences should be reconsidered. If so, it could mean reduced federal prison time for up to 19,500 inmates nationwide, including 279 in Maryland, according to the commission.

In yesterday's ruling, the court found that a 15-year sentence given to Derrick Kimbrough, a black military veteran from Norfolk, Va., was permissible even though federal sentencing guidelines for trafficking crack called for a substantially longer stint behind bars.

Opponents have long argued that the tougher sentences for crack-related crimes unjustly target poor blacks, who are more likely to use and sell the drug. Whites, on the other hand, are more likely to possess the costlier powder form of cocaine.

"I think it's a watershed decision in drug sentencing. For two decades we've seen an escalation in the prison population because of harsh drug sentences. The court has signaled a change in course," said Graham Boyd, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Drug Law Reform Project.

An accompanying ruling yesterday could have even broader implications, legal experts said, because it concluded that judges generally should be able to impose a sentence below the once-required range, whether it involves crack or other types of offenses.

"I think that the practical effect is that judges now will feel emboldened to look at all of the factors equally in imposing a sentence that they deem to be `reasonable,'" said Gregg Bernstein, a Baltimore criminal defense attorney who practices in federal court.

Both rulings came down by a vote of 7-2, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissenting.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the opinion in the second case, which involved a University of Iowa student Ecstasy drug dealer sentenced below recommended guidelines. Stevens told federal appeals courts to give greater deference when reviewing the sentences of lower court judges.

Potential windfall

"It's a strong statement to the circuit courts to stop micromanaging district judges," said Douglas Berman, a law professor at Ohio State University and an expert on sentencing law. Defense attorneys described the new paradigm as a potential windfall for those who try to persuade judges to consider a number of factors before imposing sentence.

James Wyda, Maryland's federal public defender, said the rulings return to judges the power to "exercise their discretion and consider the unique circumstances of the individuals before them."

Sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine in particular has enflamed critics for more than two decades, since the federal government in the 1980s first required tougher punishments for crack-related offenses.

Under the rules, a federal sentence for possession of a gram of crack is roughly equal to that for possession about 100 grams of powder cocaine. But the disparity extends to laws in 13 states, including Maryland, which mandates a five-year minimum penalty for trafficking 448 grams of powder cocaine, and the same for only 50 grams or more of crack cocaine.

Supporters argued that the disparity rightly takes into account the addictive power of crack, a highly concentrated, usually cheaper form of cocaine.

"It is our experience in Maryland that crack cocaine is a more significant law enforcement issue. It results in more violence and more drug addiction," Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said yesterday.

`Racially biased'

But Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, whose organization filed a brief in support of the Iowa student, argued that "over 15 years of study by the Sentencing Commission and other agencies have proven that crack cocaine sentences are racially biased and excessive for the low-level, nonviolent offenders to which they are applied."

Baltimore criminal defense attorney Larry Nathans, an authority on federal sentencing issues, said the court's decision in Kimbrough could "help reduce the huge overcrowding in our prisons of overwhelmingly street-level minority drug dealers."

Critics of harsh drug sentences acknowledged that the rulings leave intact mandatory minimum prison sentences, which are often the foundation of a lengthy prison term. Also, the court did not find that the inequality in crack cocaine sentencing was unconstitutional, only that judges could factor the disparity into account if the case warranted it.

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