Judges Given Leeway in Crack Sentencing
By MARK SHERMAN
WASHINGTON (AP) Ö The Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal judges have broad leeway to impose shorter prison terms for crack cocaine crimes, bringing sentences closer to those for powder cocaine crimes Ö a decision with a strong racial dimension because the vast majority of crack offenders are black. [incorrect: the majority of offenders are white; the majority of those arrested, convicted, and imprisoned are black]
The court, by 7-2 votes in the crack case and one other involving drugs, upheld more lenient sentences imposed by judges who rejected federal sentencing guidelines as too harsh.
The decision was announced ahead of a vote scheduled for Tuesday by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets the guidelines, that could cut prison time for as many as 19,500 federal inmates convicted of crack crimes.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority in the crack case, said a 15-year sentence given to Derrick Kimbrough was acceptable, even though federal sentencing guidelines called for Kimbrough to receive 19 to 22 years.
“In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the guidelines’ treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses,” Ginsburg said.
Kimbrough, a veteran of the first Gulf War, is black, as are more than 80 percent of federal defendants sentenced in crack cases. By contrast, just over a quarter of those convicted of powder cocaine crimes last year were black.
It’s a start.