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Court looks again at sentencing laws

The Supreme Court takes up two cases Tuesday that could bring clarity to what has become a murky federal sentencing system.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2007


The US Supreme Court takes up a case on Tuesday touching on a longstanding controversy over crack-cocaine sentences, amid continued confusion among federal judges over how to apply federal sentencing guidelines.

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A few years ago, federal judges were meting out punishments with machine-like efficiency. Under the sentencing guidelines system established in the 1980s, judges identified certain characteristics of convicted defendants and their crimes, plugged those details into a punishment matrix, and emerged with a sentencing range.

The mandatory guidelines system approved by Congress helped foster uniformity of punishments. But it sometimes produced harsh, unfair sentences.

Then, in 2005, the US Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing guidelines system was unconstitutional. Instead of a mandatory system, the high court declared the guidelines were now only "advisory."

Some sentencing experts thought the 2005 ruling might permit judges to act with more freedom to prevent the unfairness in the old mandatory system. But two years later, judges are still struggling to divine how much judicial discretion the high court packed into the word "advisory."

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court takes up two cases that could bring clarity to the now murky federal sentencing system. Both cases involve attempts by federal judges to hand down sentences that were more lenient than sentences that would have been required under a mandatory guidelines system. Both sentences were vacated by appeals courts because the sentencing judges were said to have unreasonably exerted too much discretion in the sentencing process.

In Gall v. US, a federal judge rejected the suggested guidelines sentence of three years in prison and instead sentenced Brian Gall to three years' probation.

Mr. Gall pleaded guilty to having helped distribute 10,000 tablets of the drug Ecstasy while a college student in Iowa in 2000. But the judge noted that Gall's participation in the conspiracy lasted only a period of months when he was relatively young, and that in the four years since the end of his drug dealing, he had changed his life by no longer using drugs or alcohol, graduating from college, and running his own construction business. When confronted by federal agents years later about his alleged drug dealing as a student, Gall accepted responsibility and expressed remorse for his past actions.

The judge's sentence was overturned by a federal appeals court in St. Louis. The appeals court said probation was an unreasonable punishment in light of the seriousness of Gall's prior drug dealing.

The justices must decide whether the judge acted within his discretion to sentence Gall to probation, or whether such a departure from the suggested guidelines sentence requires a showing of extraordinary circumstances.

The second case, Kimbrough v. US, touches on the longstanding dispute over a discrepancy in the sentencing guidelines between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. The guidelines boost the amount of punishment based on the quantity of drugs seized. Because the guidelines were written in the mid-1980s at a time of fear and misinformation about crack cocaine, they reflect substantially larger penalties for crack than for powder cocaine.