Justices Reinforce Leeway on Sentences

Undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows two Narcotics Identification Kit (NIK) tests positive for cocaine. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard)
Undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard shows two Narcotics Identification Kit (NIK) tests positive for cocaine. (AP Photo/US Coast Guard) (AP)
By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that federal judges are not bound by federal guidelines calling for tougher penalties for those who sell crack rather than powder cocaine, giving them broad discretion in drug and other criminal cases.

The justices decided two cases by 7 to 2 majorities, reinforcing their view that formerly mandatory federal sentencing guidelines are advisory only. The opinions gave sentencing judges wide leeway in deviating from the guidelines, which had been enacted to bring national uniformity to the administration of justice, so long as their decisions are reasonable.

In one case, the justices backed a Virginia district judge who denounced as "ridiculous" guidelines that would impose the same sentences on a crack dealer as on a dealer of powder cocaine who sells 100 times as much of his drug. The guidelines have been criticized as racially discriminatory because most crack offenders are black, while powder cocaine is more widely used by whites.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission this year said the disparity was too great for drugs that are much the same. It approved new guidelines, which went into effect last month, substantially reducing the difference.

The commission is scheduled to vote today on whether approximately 19,500 prisoners sentenced under the old guidelines should be eligible to ask courts to cut their sentences.

Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which has opposed the disparity in punishment, said the court's decision could provide an "impetus" for the commission to approve the retroactivity decision.

The Bush administration was on the losing side in both cases, saying the more lenient sentences in both cases were improper.

The decisions are part of an ongoing struggle within the court to balance the power of a sentencing judge closest to the individual case and the desire for uniformity in sentencing.

In 2005, justices said mandatory guidelines violated the Constitution because judges were called upon to find facts that are a jury's responsibility. The court's remedy was to make the guidelines advisory, but appellate courts have struggled to determine how much district court judges may deviate from the recommendations.

In the crack case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond said that Judge Raymond A. Jackson did not have the authority to ignore the guidelines he criticized. He gave Derrick Kimbrough, a black military veteran convicted of crack dealing, a sentence of 15 years rather than the 19 to 22 years the guidelines recommended, saying that was adequate punishment for the crime.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority in the case, said the appeals court had incorrectly treated the guidelines as "effectively mandatory."

"It would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary," she wrote in Kimbrough v. U.S.

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