Crack Cocaine Sentencing Headed to Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court has agreed to rule on the U.S. v. Kimbrough case, in which an eastern-Virginia US District Court judge, Raymond Jackson, sentenced a crack cocaine offender -- Derrick Kimbrough -- to a below-guidelines sentence, only to be overruled following an appeal by the government to the 4th Circuit. "Guidelines" here refers to the federal sentencing guidelines (similar to, but not to be confused with the mandatory minimums), in which certain very harsh sentences require only 1/100th the amount of crack cocaine to get triggered as is required of powder cocaine. The "government" here refers to federal prosecutors, who objected that Judge Jackson had based his view that the guidelines sentence for Kimbrough's offense was unreasonable (a requirement for downward departures in the post-Booker ruling federal sentencing world, at least for now) in part on his disagreement over the policy of the harsher sentences for crack offenders. The Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit agreed, and Kimbrough's sentence was kicked back up to the much-criticized guidelines level. Also before the Court is the case of Victor Rita, another crack cocaine defendant. And the Court has promised to pick a case that deals with the same issue as the one that was at stake in the case of Mario Claiborne, who died earlier this year (info at same link). While there are far more whites who use crack cocaine than blacks, as the Associated Press reported today, "[m]ost crack cocaine offenders in federal courts are black." Why does the 4th Circuit Appeals Court see the intellectual path a judge took to get to a finding of unreasonableness as more important than the self-evidently unreasonable nature of the draconian sentences they are defending? Both Mr. Kimbrough and Judge Jackson are African American, by the way. They are also both veterans -- Kimbrough fought in the first Gulf War; Jackson has a decades-long military career that included a stint as a JAG and includes continuing service as a colonel in the Reserves. The 4th Circuit decision, which is only two paragraphs long, is not published online (or so I've read), but visit the post made about this case on the Sentencing Law and Policy blog and scroll down to the third comment to read it. Our topical archive on the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is online here (though it only goes back to early fall -- you have to use the search engine for earlier stories). We also have a Federal Courts archive here Last but not least, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, click here to write to Congress in support of H.R. 460, Charlie Rangel's bill to reduce crack cocaine sentences to the same level as sentences for powder cocaine.
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