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Supreme Court gives judges more leeway in crack-cocaine sentencing

In two decisions Monday, the high court offers guidance on US sentencing guidelines.

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Federal judges have discretion to sentence individuals to prison terms that substantially depart from the punishment range established in the federal sentencing guidelines.

In a pair of 7-to-2 decisions announced Monday, the US Supreme Court offered important guidance to federal judges who have been struggling to mete out sentences after the high court's 2005 ruling that said the sentencing guidelines established by Congress are no longer mandatory, but are now only advisory.

How much sentencing flexibility does the Supreme Court say such advisory guidelines permit?

In the two cases decided Monday, the justices overturned appeals courts that had invalidated sentences substantially below the range of sentences suggested under the guidelines.

In one, the federal judge had rejected the disparity between crack-cocaine sentences and powder-cocaine sentences. The federal appeals court said the judge lacked the discretion to do so and overturned the sentence.

In the other case, the judge issued a more lenient sentence in recognition that the defendant had turned his life around, took responsibility for his crime, and was leading a productive life. The appeals court reversed the lower sentence, saying the judge failed to offer the necessary extraordinary circumstances to justify a sentence so far below the guidelines.

The two decisions together establish a new, higher standard for appeals courts to overturn a judge's sentence. An appeals court must find that a particular sentence is unreasonable and that the sentencing judge abused his or her discretion in weighing the various factors that led to the sentence.

The touchstone of this test is that federal judges impose sentences sufficient, but not greater than necessary to accomplish the sentencing goals set by Congress.

Writing for the majority in the crack-cocaine case, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the extensive debate – including within the Sentencing Commission itself – over the disparity between crack-cocaine sentences and powder-cocaine sentences. "Given all this," she writes, "it would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary."


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