Fairer drug sentences

This week's 7-2 decision by the Supreme Court on two cases involving drug convictions restored needed discretion in sentencing to federal judges and, in the process, addressed the unfair disparity in sentencing guidelines for different drug convictions.

The two cases before the court involved a military veteran convicted of crack dealing and a man accused of selling the drug Ecstasy while in college but not tracked down and arrested until years later. In each case, the presiding judge imposed a lighter sentence than what was called for in the federal sentencing guidelines.

In the first case, the judge sentenced an honorably-discharged Gulf War veteran and first-time offender to 15 years for crack distribution and gun-related charges instead of the 19 to 22 years called for by the federal guidelines.

The second case involved a master carpenter who had sold drugs in college but had led a clean life for years afterward. The judge sentenced him to 36 months' probation instead of 30 months in jail as specified by the guidelines.

While the guidelines, established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission are not mandatory, they serve as a means of ensuring some parity in sentencing in all federal courts. But the glaring disparity between sentencing for offenses involving crack cocaine compared with those for powder cocaine has been a point of contention since the guidelines were established in the 1980s.

Under those guidelines, the punishment for dealing 1 gram of crack cocaine is the same as the sentence for a dealer trafficking in 100 grams of powder cocaine. The disparity arose from unfounded fears that crack cocaine was considerably more addictive and dangerous than powder cocaine.

In fact, the pharmacological effect of both drugs is practically identical. The difference is in the users: Most crack users are low-income blacks; most powder cocaine users are middle-class whites. Of the federal defendants sentenced in crack cases, more than 80 percent are African-Americans.

Writing for the majority in the crack case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the judge had been justified in considering the disparity between the sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine offenses. The ruling not only gives judges the flexibility to make reasonable exceptions to the guidelines when called for but also focuses attention on the grotesque unfairness of cocaine sentencing.

The Sentencing Commission recently revised its guidelines and, on Tuesday, voted unanimously to retroactively review many of the cocaine sentences handed down using those guidelines. That could affect as many as 19,500 federal inmates convicted of crack crimes.

But Congress also needs to rewrite the crack cocaine laws on which the guidelines are partially based. There is no fairness in a system where sentences hinge on possession of amounts of basically the same drug that differ by 100 to one.

Supreme Court ruling gives judges more leeway to bring fairness to sentencing process.

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