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Court to reconsider sentencing terms for selling crack

Critics have charged racial disparity in the length of prison stays.

June 12, 2007|David G. Savage | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed for the first time Monday to reconsider the long prison terms meted out to the mostly black defendants who are convicted of selling crack cocaine.

At least 25,000 defendants per year are sent to federal prison on crack cocaine charges, and their prison terms are usually 50% longer than those for dealers selling powder cocaine.

This disparity, with its racial overtones, has been controversial for two decades since Congress ramped up the "war on drugs" in response to a crack cocaine epidemic that was sweeping many cities.

Crack was targeted for stiffer penalties because it was viewed as more potent and dangerous than powder cocaine.

At that time, lawmakers set mandatory minimum prison terms based on the quantity of drugs sold.

A sale of five grams of crack cocaine triggers the same five-year prison term as selling 500 grams of powder cocaine, even though they are the same substance.

Critics have said this 100-to-1 disparity is unfair and racially biased because dealers in crack cocaine are more often black, whereas powder cocaine is said to be sold more often to whites and by whites.

But until now, lawmakers, the Justice Department and the courts have been unwilling to lessen the prison terms for crack dealers.

In a speech to the American Bar Assn. four years ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy called these mandatory minimum sentences "unwise and unjust."

He recounted U.S. marshals taking a young man into custody to serve his sentence.

"His mother says, 'How long will my boy be gone?' They say, '10 years' or '15 years,' " Kennedy said.

He urged the lawyers to lobby Congress to repeal the mandatory minimum sentences.

For its part, the Supreme Court did not signal Monday a willingness to say these sentences are unconstitutional. Instead, the justices agreed to decide whether trial judges should have more leeway to impose somewhat lighter sentences in crack cocaine cases.

In the fall, the justices will hear the case of a convicted drug dealer from Norfolk, Va., who was given a 15-year prison term for selling both crack and powder cocaine.

The trial judge noted the U.S. sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of between 19 and 22 years, in part because the crack cocaine sale raised the stakes. But he also noted the defendant, Derrick Kimbrough, had served honorably in the Army during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and had been a construction worker in the years since then.

But prosecutors appealed, and the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., ruled the defendant must be given the 19- to 22-year prison term called for in the sentencing rules.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the sentencing rules are guidelines, not mandates, but it remains unclear whether trial judges may impose lighter sentences than the range set by the guidelines.

Victory for the defendant in Kimbrough vs. United States could affect tens of thousands of federal prisoners.

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