WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday granted judges more discretion to be lenient with drug defendants, further chipping away at the harsh sentences once imposed for crack cocaine.
In a closely watched 7-2 ruling that temporarily united conservatives, centrists and liberals on the bench, the court ruled that trial judges can impose less severe punishment than federal sentencing guidelines call for. Increasingly, trial judges and lawmakers contend that crack cocaine sentencing guidelines are draconian and racially biased, because most convicted crack dealers are African-American.
"It would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder (cocaine) disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the majority.
The decision involving Derrick Kimbrough, a convicted Virginia drug dealer and Persian Gulf War veteran, doesn't eliminate all sentencing distinctions between powder and crack cocaine. Rather, the ruling gives trial judges more leeway when they disagree with federal sentencing guidelines.
Spooked by stories of crack's super-potency, Congress set much stricter penalties for crack than for powder cocaine two decades ago. The so-called "100 to 1" sentencing disparity means that possessing 5 grams of crack brings the same five-year prison term as possessing 500 grams of powder cocaine.
The ruling in Kimbrough v. United States means that judges can give shorter sentences without being second-guessed. Three years ago, the Supreme Court made all federal sentencing guidelines advisory rather than mandatory. That decision, though, left unclear how much discretion judges retained to deviate from recommended sentences.
"The court is free to make its own reasonable (decision) and to reject, after due consideration, the advice of the guidelines," Ginsburg wrote.
Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr said in a statement that the Bush administration was disappointed in the ruling but would respect it.
"Today's opinion highlights the need for Congress to pass legislation that will clarify federal sentencing policy to help ensure that it is consistent, tough, fair and predictable," Carr said.
The results of the ruling could be sweeping, starting with Kimbrough himself.
Caught in Norfolk, he pleaded guilty to possessing firearms, 56 grams of crack and 92 grams of powder cocaine. The federal sentencing guidelines called for 228 to 270 months in prison. Instead, a federal judge sentenced him to 180 months.
"The (judge) commented that the case exemplified the 'disproportionate and unjust effect that crack cocaine guidelines have on sentencing,' " Ginsburg noted.
Some 25,000 defendants were sentenced in federal court on crack cocaine charges in the past five years, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Eighty-one percent of those sentenced last year on federal crack charges were, like Kimbrough, African-American.
By contrast, African-Americans accounted for only 27 percent of those sentenced on powder cocaine charges last year. On average, the crack cocaine defendants received sentences that were 50 percent longer than those that the powder cocaine defendants got.
Citing this racial disparity, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus have tried periodically to revise the cocaine sentencing rules, imposed during the Reagan administration.
Already, the sentencing guidelines have been crumbling under pressure.
Earlier this year, Congress allowed new guidelines to take effect that will reduce the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine. On Tuesday, in a potentially more controversial move, the U.S. Sentencing Commission will consider whether to make those more lenient guidelines retroactive for those already in prison.
If it does so, an estimated 19,500 prisoners could petition to have their sentences reduced.
"I just don't see how, in good faith, that just because someone was sentenced on Oct. 30 that they get a certain sentence, whereas someone sentenced on Nov. 1 gets a different sentence," U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton told the sentencing commission last month.
"When I was a state legislator, I thought that locking up people for long sentences made us safer, but I know differently now," Pat Nolan, a former California assemblyman who served two years in prison on bribery charges, told the commission last month.
Monday's ruling is a defeat for the Bush administration, which had argued that judges shouldn't have as much sentencing discretion. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented from the majority opinion, contending that Congress should set sentencing rules.
"(This) has left the court with no law to apply and forced it to assume the legislative role of devising a new sentencing scheme," Thomas wrote.
In a related case, the court upheld a judge who'd sentenced an admitted Ecstasy dealer to probation rather than the recommended two and a half years in prison.
"The (sentencing) guidelines are the starting point and initial benchmark, but are not the only consideration," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the case, called Gall v. United States.