Court Allows Discretion for Cocaine Sentences

A Supreme Court ruling today gives federal judges more discretion to depart from federal guidelines that punish crack cocaine defendants far more severely than those convicted of selling the drug's powder form.

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A Supreme Court ruling today gives federal judges more discretion to depart from federal guidelines that punish crack cocaine defendants far more severely than those convicted of selling the drug's powder form.

According to the guidelines in force when the defendant was convicted, a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence was to be imposed for trafficking in 5 grams of crack cocaine or 100 times as much cocaine powder.

The case before the court challenged an appellate court's ruling overturning a trial judge's sentence for selling crack cocaine that was below the federal guideline range.

By considering the individual factors of the case—the defendant Derrick Kimbrough's lack of a prior felony conviction, his military service, and his steady employment history—"the District Court properly homed in on the particular circumstances of [the] case and accorded weight to the [U.S.] Sentencing Commission's consistent and emphatic position that the crack/powder disparity is at odds with," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the majority 7-to-2 opinion for the court, reversing the appellate court's ruling.

And Ginsburg noted that the original court "did not purport to establish a ratio of its own" for the sentencing disparity.

New rules by the federal Sentencing Commission recently reduced the ratio to anywhere from 25 to 1 to 80 to 1, depending on the quantity. But today's decision will no doubt have an effect on the current debate over whether to apply this change retroactively.

- -Emma Schwartz

Related links:

Court's decision

Oral arguments

Court to consider disparities