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U.S. Supreme Court

Court to Consider Cocaine Sentences

Posted Jun 12, 2007 10:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether federal judges may depart from guidelines to correct disparities in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine.

Possession of only 5 grams of crack cocaine gets a minimum five-year sentence under a 21-year-old federal law, the same sentence imposed for 500 grams of cocaine powder. Critics claim the sentencing-guidelines law has a disproportionate impact on the poor, who are more likely to use crack than powder cocaine.

Many federal judges have been ignoring the guideline and issuing lower sentences for crack cocaine, Linda Greenhouse of the New York Times reports. Federal appeals courts are divided on the issue.

Appeals courts that reject the guidelines rely on a 2005 Supreme Court decision that made the sentencing guidelines advisory.

The justices selected an appeal by prosecutors seeking a higher sentence for Derrick Kimbrough, a veteran from Norfolk, Va. The federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence of 19 to 22 years in prison for Kimbrough’s crime, possessing and distributing more than 50 grams of crack.

A federal judge called that sentence “ridiculous” and refused to impose it.

But the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. It said the 2005 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, does not give courts the power to ignore mandatory minimum sentences based on concerns about disparate treatment, the Washington Post reports.

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