Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Supreme Court Ruling Aimed At Reducing Racial Disparity
The Associated Press reports that on Monday the Supreme Court ruled that judges may impose shorter prison sentences for crack cocaine crimes, enhancing judicial discretion to reduce the disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine powder. By a 7-2 vote, the court said that a 15-year sentence given to Derrick Kimbrough, a black veteran of the 1991 war with Iraq, was acceptable, even though federal sentencing guidelines called for Kimbrough to receive 19 to 22 years.
In a separate sentencing case that did not involve crack cocaine, the court also ruled in favor of judicial discretion to impose more lenient sentences than federal guidelines recommend.The challenges to criminal sentences center on a judge's discretion to impose a shorter sentence than is called for in guidelines established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, at Congress' direction. The guidelines were adopted in the mid-1980s to help produce uniform punishments for similar crimes.
The cases are the result of a decision three years ago in which the justices ruled that judges need not strictly follow the sentencing guidelines. Instead, appellate courts would review sentences for reasonableness, although the court has since struggled to define what it meant by that term. Seventy percent of crack defendants are given the mandatory prison terms. Those convicted of crimes involving crack are overwhelmingly people of color.
Kimbrough's case did not present the justices with the ultimate question of the fairness of the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences. Congress wrote the harsher treatment for crack into a law that sets a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine or 100 times as much cocaine powder. The law also sets maximum terms.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, said, "A reviewing court could not rationally conclude that it was an abuse of discretion" to cut four years off the guidelines-recommended sentence for Kimbrough. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas (surprise, surprise) dissented. It seems that Thomas has no ambition to help people of color, especially black people, but I digress (check out his book in the library).
The Sentencing Commission recently changed the guidelines to reduce the disparity in prison time for the two crimes. New guidelines took effect Nov. 1 after Congress took no action to overturn the change. The commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday afternoon on the retroactive application of the crack cocaine guideline amendment that went into effect on Nov. 1. The commission has estimated 19,500 inmates could apply for sentence reductions under the proposal.