The Supreme Court gives judges greater say in crack cocaine and other sentences.
Published Dec. 11, 2007|Updated Dec. 21, 2007

The Supreme Court gave federal judges greater flexibility Monday in sentencing offenders, especially those convicted of dealing crack cocaine.

In a pair of decisions, the court held that judges may hand down more lenient sentences than those called for by the federal sentencing guidelines enacted by Congress. Among other things, those guidelines call for heavier penalties for distributing crack over powder cocaine, a provision that has a strong racial dimension because the vast majority of crack offenders are black.

Together, the decisions give judges tools to loosen the grip mandatory minimum sentences have had on the criminal justice system, the tough-on-crime policies that critics say have stuffed jails with low-level violators.

Now that the door to discretion is opened wider, Tampa Bay area defense attorneys were divided about the impact the decisions will have.

Given the flagrant disparity between the federal treatment of crack and powder cocaine cases, "of course the court was right to say what it said," said Pat Doherty, a St. Petersburg defense attorney who said he has handled 20 to 30 federal cases involving drug crimes. "I just don't know that it will have any effect."

Noting that the decisions were the latest in a string of high court rulings expanding discretion, he said: "I haven't seen (federal judges) rushing through the door."

Adam Allen, an assistant federal public defender in Tampa, was a little more optimistic.

The guidelines for crack cocaine are "incredibly brutal," Allen said. "And now (judges) have been told it's not unlawful for them" to deviate from the guidelines.

By and large, federal judges in the Middle District of Florida have been "conservative" when it comes to moving away from the guidelines, he said. But "some judges have taken some baby steps into that door, and with each of these opinions, they push the door a little more open."

"The guidelines have been in place since 1987, so we don't have a lot of judges who practiced in a nonmandatory-guidelines system," Allen continued. "It's a new system, and to some degree there are judges that view that Congress has a lot of wisdom in this area."

Both of the cases decided Monday, each by the same 7-2 alignment, chided federal appeals courts for failing to give district judges sufficient leeway. The appeals court had in each case overturned a sentence that was lower than that provided by the guidelines.

The two dissenters were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In one of the cases, involving crack cocaine, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said it was reasonable for a federal judge in Virginia to impose a lower sentence than one prescribed by the guidelines because of his disagreement with the rule that imposed the same sentence for a crack dealer as for someone selling 100 times as much powder cocaine. The U.S. Court of Appeals said the law did not allow the judge to make such a determination.

Judges still may not impose sentences above the range written into law by Congress or state legislatures. But the decisions give judges broad discretion to impose sentences higher or lower than the guidelines, which are not statutes and are issued by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

"The guidelines should be the starting point and the initial benchmark," Justice John Paul Stevens said in one decision.

But Stevens went on to say that the guidelines were just one factor in the "individualized assessment" that a judge must make in every case. The judge "may not presume that the guidelines range is reasonable," he said.

Alito said that after Monday's decisions, "sentencing disparities will gradually increase."

Information from Times staff writer Ron Matus, the Washington Post and the New York Times was used in this report.