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Supreme Court gives judges more leeway in crack-cocaine sentencing

In two decisions Monday, the high court offers guidance on US sentencing guidelines.

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Of those sentenced in federal court for crack-cocaine trafficking, 88 percent were African-American and only 4 percent were white, according to a 1995 study. Yet more than half of all crack users were white, according to another study.

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The high-court decision comes in the case of convicted crack dealer Derrick Kimbrough. He was arrested in 2004 in Norfolk, Va., with 56 grams of crack and 92 grams of powder cocaine. Under the guidelines, Mr. Kimbrough faced a sentence of 14 to 17-1/2 years in prison for the drug portion of his case. But the guidelines were no longer mandatory. After studying the disparity issue, the judge decided to sentence Kimbrough to 10 years in prison for the drug portion of the case.

A federal appeals court panel in Richmond, Va., vacated the sentence, declaring that even though the guidelines are only advisory, a sentence so far below the guidelines range was unreasonable.

In reversing the appeals court, Justice Ginsburg said, "The district court properly homed in on the particular circumstances of Kimbrough's case and accorded weight to the Sentencing Commission's consistent and emphatic position that the crack/powder disparity is at odds with [the federal sentencing law]."

The second decision was written by Justice John Paul Stevens. It involves the case of Brian Gall, an Iowa construction company owner, who pleaded guilty to helping distribute 10,000 tablets of the illegal drug Ecstasy while he was a 21-year-old college student.

The federal judge in his case rejected the suggested guidelines sentence of three years in prison and instead sentenced Mr. Gall to three years' probation.

Gall had pleaded guilty to the drug crime and cooperated with federal agents investigating the matter. 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 turned his life around by no longer using drugs or alcohol, graduating from college, and starting and running his own successful construction business.

When confronted by federal agents years later about his alleged drug dealing as a student, Gall accepted responsibility and expressed remorse.

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. A sentencing judge must show extraordinary circumstances to justify such a sentence, the court said.

In reversing the appeals court, Justice Stevens writes that federal judges must consider the sentencing guidelines and must explain and justify the appropriateness of an unusually lenient or harsh sentence. "An appellate court may take the degree of variance into account and consider the extent of deviation from the guidelines, but it may not require 'extraordinary' circumstances or employ a rigid mathematical formula," he says.

Stevens wrote that the appeals court "failed to give due deference to the district court's reasoned and reasonable sentencing decision."

Two justices dissented in both decisions. Justice Clarence Thomas said he would uphold the appeals courts because their decisions were aimed at upholding the sentencing goals of Congress. The other dissenting justice is Samuel Alito.