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Feature: Supreme Court Weighs Arguments on Limits of Judicial Discretion in Sentencing

The US Supreme Court Tuesday heard oral arguments in a pair of drug cases that will help clarify how much discretion federal judges have in sentencing under federal sentencing guidelines. When rendered, the court's opinion could impact the tens of thousands of people sentenced in the federal courts each year.

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US Supreme Court
While one of the cases involves a man sentenced under the crack cocaine laws, which punish crack much more severely than powder cocaine, the court's decision will have no impact on the federal mandatory minimum sentence laws under which many drug offenders are subjected to lengthy prison sentences.

The court's taking up the two sentencing guideline cases comes as the nation's quarter-century-long experiment with mass incarceration is under increasing pressure. The federal prison population has expanded nearly ten-fold from 24,000 prisoners in 1982 to more than 200,000 this year, more than half of them drug offenders under the harsh regime of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences.

The US Sentencing Commission is set to reduce the guidelines' crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity administratively November 1 unless Congress acts to block it, though it has not yet decided whether to make the change retroactive. While the proposed reduction is slighter than advocates have called for, if made retroactive it would help about 19,500 current prisoners, most notably those serving the longer sentences, by an average of 27 months or relief -- 1,315 current prisoners would receive sentences reductions of 49 months or more. At least three bills addressing that disparity have been filed in Congress. And just yesterday, Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), a member the Joint Economic Committee, held a hearing titled "Mass Incarceration in the United States: At What Cost?"

The Supreme Court threw the federal sentencing structure into a sort of judicial chaos when it ruled two years ago in Booker v. US, and a related case, US v. Fan Fan, that federal sentencing guidelines, which had for the past two decades limited judges' sentencing decisions to finding the proper box on a sentencing grid, were no longer mandatory, but only advisory. Since then, federal district and appellate courts have struggled to determine just what that means, with some judges sometimes handing out sentences below the guidelines, which have in turn sometimes been overturned on appeal.

The two cases before the court represent different aspects of the federal sentencing conundrum. In Gall v. US, Brian Gall was convicted of conspiracy to sell ecstasy in Iowa, but rather than sentence him to the 30-37 months in prison suggested by the guidelines, his sentencing judge gave him probation, noting that he had walked away from the conspiracy years earlier and led an exemplary life since. The probationary sentence was overturned by the 8th US Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

In Kimbrough v. US, Derrick Kimbrough was convicted of selling crack and powder cocaine in Virginia. Citing Kimbrough's military service and the controversy over the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, his trial judge sentenced him to the mandatory minimum 15 years instead of the 19-22 years suggested by the guidelines. His sentence, too, was overturned, this time by the US 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In Gall, the appeals court held that such an "extraordinary" departure from the guidelines required an "extraordinary" justification. In Kimbrough, the appeals court held that judges could not reject a guidelines sentence because of their disagreement with underlying sentencing policy.

In oral arguments in the two cases Tuesday, the court displayed some of the same confusion and ambivalence its previous sentencing rulings have generated on the federal bench. The court is caught between two seemingly irreconcilable goals: to ensure similar sentences for similar offenses, and to restore a measure of discretion to judges.

"It may be quite impossible to achieve uniformity through advisory guidelines, which is why Congress made them mandatory," Justice Antonin Scalia observed. But Scalia has led the bloc of the court that has moved to undo the mandatory federal guidelines scheme.

Justice Stephen Breyer, who helped author the guidelines and remains their strongest proponent on the court, accused Kimbrough's counsel, Michael Nachmanoff, of not offering the court a way out of its dilemma after Nachmanoff insisted that Booker required that judges be granted reasonable flexibility." You're saying either we have to make it [the sentencing guidelines] unconstitutional," he said, "or you have to say anything goes."

"Your position is not anything goes," Scalia jumped in in Nachmanoff's defense. "It's anything that's reasonable goes."

That led Justice Anthony M. Kennedy to ask, "How do we define 'reasonable?'" And so the argument turned in circles.

For his part, Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben, who argued both cases, argued that Congress intended to punish crack cocaine more seriously than powder, and judges should heed Congress' will. "For a judge to say Congress is crazy," Dreeben said, "is a sort of textbook example of an unreasonable sentencing factor."

"The guidelines are only guidelines. They are advisory," Scalia shot back, adding that sometimes sentences were too long.

While the tenor of oral arguments suggested a favorable ruling may be coming, especially for Kimbrough, observers of the court were reluctant to speculate. But they were not reluctant to talk about what it all means.

"Everyone is struggling" with the federal sentencing conundrum, said Doug Berman, professor of law at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and author of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog. "Most prominently, they are trying to figure out what to make of this opaque standard of reasonableness," he said.

"If the Supreme Court reverses the circuit courts and upholds the trial courts, emphasizing the discretion district court judges have to reduce sentences below the guidelines, that could have a significant impact, especially on first offenders and others with mitigating factors," Berman said.

"The national debate over the excessive penalties prescribed under the federal sentencing guidelines for low-level crack cocaine offenses has infiltrated Congress, the advocacy community and now the US Supreme Court," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "There is nearly universal agreement that current sentences for crack cocaine offenses are unfair and ineffective. The court's action will certainly influence the policy debate," he added.

"The Supreme Court's consideration of the magnitude of discretion afforded to federal sentencing judges is a step towards creating a more just sentencing system," said Mauer. "In light of recent events in Jena, Louisiana, and concerns about disparity within the justice system, a new consciousness about the unfairness and ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system has emerged," Mauer continued.

"These cases have to be considered against the backdrop of extraordinarily long terms for minor drug offenders," Berman said. "That the government can argue that sending Kimbrough to prison for 15 years is unreasonably lenient and the length of that sentence hardly gets questioned suggests that everyone has drunk the federal sentencing guideline kool-aid," he said.

For some groups with a deep interest in justice in sentencing, whatever the Supreme Court does won't be enough. "Whatever the court decides, the real solution to unjust crack sentences lies in Congress," said Mary Price, vice president and general counsel for Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Even if the court permits judges to avoid unjust crack sentences called for by the guidelines, many defendants will still be sentenced under unjust mandatory minimum statutes. Congress made a mistake by basing sentencing almost exclusively on one factor -- drug quantity. Judges should be permitted to sentence based on all facts about the defendant and the offense, not just quantity. These cases show why mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unwise, unnecessary, and unjust."

It goes even deeper than that, said Chuck Armsbury of the November Coalition, an anti-prohibitionist group that concentrates on freeing drug war prisoners. "No amount of Supreme Court tinkering with the sentencing guidelines can guarantee an end to sentencing disparities," he said. "Most of the sentencing disparity is due to rules and results of deal making by informants, police and prosecutors working together secretly. The justices are unlikely to admit they can't determine the fairness of a hidden system's operations," he argued. "To fix this broken system would mean to rein in police, prosecutors and the snitch system producing substantial differences in drug sentences."

That's not going to happen through the Supreme Court chipping at the edges of draconian sentencing, Armsbury said. "Even if they win, the cases under review this week will likely join a long line of previous Supreme Court cases that failed to correct wrongful sentencing practices or result in the release of thousands of over-incarcerated people, the great majority convicted of drug crimes."

Still, if further reform of the draconian federal sentencing laws comes out of this pair of cases, some drug defendants will get lesser sentences, and that's a good thing. But as the critics point out, it's not enough. The mass incarceration juggernaut has been speeding along for decades now, and it's going to require more than some Supreme Court decisions tinkering at the edges to achieve fundamental change.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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David Dunn's picture

Preserve separation of powers

The judiciary at all levels of government should have the discretion to modify, reduce or even set aside mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

This is essential to safeguard the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances.

States have sovereign authority over all matters that are not expressly reserved to the federal government.

Under the US Constitution, California's Compassionate Use Act was perfectly legal. The people (remember? We the people…" have the right and duty to changes laws that do not promote the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of the people.

Anti-cannabis laws do none of these. In fact, they do the opposite.

Hence, the judiciary needs to declare its independence from the tyrannical rules of the executive and legislative branches of government. The present arrangement is a despotic assault on the liberty and happiness of the people.

"The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government."

— Cannabis-smoking Thomas Jefferson

congressional intent re: crack guideline

"For his part, Justice Department lawyer Michael Dreeben, who argued both cases, argued that Congress intended to punish crack cocaine more seriously than powder, and judges should heed Congress' will."

For Michael Dreeben to use the argument that the courts should respect "congressional intent", as if it has some legal or scientific merit, is absurd. The job of the judiciary is to correct or clarify those acts of congress that result in unconstitutional, irrational and/or unscientific laws.

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