The United States Supreme Court on Monday decided that judges may use discretion in imposing sentences in federal drug cases. In Kimbrough v. United States, ___ U.S. ___ (2007), the Supreme Court fell in step with the U.S. Sentencing Commission which earlier this year adopted guidelines that subtantially lessen the disparity between sentences for powedered cocaine and crack cocaine. Federal sentencing guidelines imposed the same sentence for a crack dealer as for someone selling 100 times as much powder cocaine.
African-Americans were nearly 82 percent of defendants sentenced in federal court for dealing crack, but only 27 percent of those sentenced for dealing powder cocaine, according to 2006 federal statistics.
The disparity had been challenged by civil rights groups because crack cocaine is most often used by blacks, while powder coacaine is most often used by whites. The Court avoided the issue racial disparity by finding that the guidelines were not mandatory but rather “advisory” in nature. The Court’s decision is seen as a major victory for defendants as well as federal district judges who can now use discretion in sentencing now that the guidelines have been found to be advisory rather than mandatory.
A pile of crack cocaine
Photo from U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency
The sentencing commission is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to make those guidelines retroactive for prisoners convicted in the past of crack dealing. If the guidelines are retroactive, almost 20,000 inmates could be eligible for shorter sentences under the proposed changes.