December 10, 2007
Justices Widen Sentencing Powers of Federal Judges
By DAVID STOUT
WASHINGTON, Dec. 10 — The Supreme Court today enhanced the power of federal district judges to use their discretion in arriving at sentences in criminal cases as it upheld a relatively light sentence imposed on a crack cocaine distributor.
By 7 to 2, the court held that “the cocaine guidelines, like all other guidelines, are advisory only,” in the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote for the majority. She cited a 2005 Supreme Court decision, United States v. Booker, that “mandatory guidelines” in federal cases gave judges too much fact-finding responsibility, and that the guidelines should be “advisory” instead.
The majority concluded today that a district judge in Virginia acted properly in April 2005 when he refused to follow federal sentencing guidelines calling for far harsher penalties for trafficking in crack cocaine than they do for dealing in the powder form of the drug. In a nutshell, the effect of this ruling is to give sentencing judges considerably more discretion in criminal cases.
Rules of engagement for commentary require that I disclose my long-term advocacy for the decriminalization of recreational drug use.
Having said that, today's decision by the Supremes is heartening. As the court leaned further and further right, America filled its prisons, built more and filled them as well--disproportionately with African-Americans.
If America can get a similar judicial 'advisory' ruling on the sadistic and counter-productive 'three-strike' laws, we will have made considerable progress on the road back to civil liberties. There cannot be a shred of doubt in the minds of honest citizens that the enormous rates of incarceration for blacks and probation for whites (particularly wealthy whites) are racially motivated.
It's nice to cheer some news from the Supremes for a change.