The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday issued two decisions giving federal judges greater discretion in setting sentences for drug offenses under the federal sentencing guidelines.
In Kimbrough v. U.S., recognizing that under federal criminal statutes and sentencing guidelines, a drug trafficker dealing in crack cocaine is subject to the same sentence as a trafficker dealing in 100 times more powder cocaine, the Court declared that a federal district court judge may consider the disparity between the treatment of crack and powder offenses under federal sentencing guidelines, and the judge has discretion to find a sentence under those guidelines "greater than necessary" when sentencing for a cocaine offense. The decision indirectly addressed a race-based disparity in sentencing for crimes involving different forms of cocaine. Reuters reports that "blacks account for about 80 percent of the federal crack cocaine convictions. The guidelines call for lighter prison terms for the sale of powder cocaine, a drug more popular with whites and Hispanics."
In the second case, Gall v. U.S., the Court upheld as reasonable a district court judge's decision to give a 36-month probation sentence to a former college student who had been involved in a conspiracy to distribute "ecstacy" pills, although federal sentencing guidelines advise a 30-37 month prison sentence in such cases.
In the wake of these decisions, the U.S. Sentencing Commission -- the federal agency that establishes sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts -- on Tuesday voted unanimously to give retroactive effect to a recent amendment to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines that reduces penalties for crack cocaine offenses.