Supreme Court Approves Reduced Sentencing for Crack Offenses

December 10, 2007 04:43 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The decision will please advocates who say that the heavy punishments applied in connection with crack cocaine, in comparison with its powdered form, unfairly targeted racial minorities; opponents protest that drug dealers will be let off too lightly.

30-Second Summary

On Dec. 10, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 7-2 vote that judges may impose shorter terms for offenses related to crack cocaine.

The case in question concerned Derrick Kimbrough, a black veteran of the 1991 Gulf War who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for dealing both crack and powder cocaine.

U.S. District Judge Raymond A. Jackson, who tried the case, had described the recommended 19- to 22-year punishment as “ridiculous.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her majority decision, wrote, “A reviewing court could not rationally conclude that it was an abuse of discretion” to reduce Kimbrough’s sentence below the guideline level.

The court’s conclusion bolsters the stance of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a federal panel that assesses the fairness of judicial punishments, which earlier this year ruled that sentences related to crack ought to be lessened to mirror those applied to cocaine. That resolution became effective on Nov. 1.

Prior to these reforms, the penalties associated with possessing or selling one gram of crack were the same as those for 100 grams of powder cocaine.

Because crack is cheaper than powder cocaine and more commonly found in poorer, inner-city neighborhoods, some observers inferred that the disparity in sentencing betrayed a racial bias in the legislature.

The Supreme Court decides tomorrow, Dec. 11, whether the new sentencing guidelines will be applied retroactively, a move that could potentially free 3,800 prisoners.

The court's decision did not directly address the question of racial bias.

Headline link: Drug penalties raise question of racial bias

Background: The U.S. Sentencing Commission, Kimbrough v. the United States, and the Dept. of Justice

Historical Context: The 1986 and 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse acts

Opinions & Analysis: What legal analysts have been saying

Reference Materials: The differences between crack and powder cocaine

Drug Enforcement Agency

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