Some federal judges are handing out shorter prison terms for crack cocaine crimes since last year’s Supreme Court decision giving judges more discretion in sentencing, says the Associated Press, reporting a study by the Sentencing Project, which supports alternative to long prison sentences. Defendants in the study received prison terms averaging 11 years, but those terms were less than what is called for in 20-year-old sentencing guidelines. The Supreme Court ruled a year ago that judges need not follow the guidelines. The Sentencing Project said “crack cocaine sentences are still long but they better reflect individual circumstances.”
The analysis focused on crack because the guidelines punish some crack cocaine offenses more severely than powder cocaine offenses. A person must possess 100 times more powder cocaine than crack cocaine to receive a comparable sentence. The report, which can be found at www.sentencingproject.org, looked at a small sample of 24 cases in which judges wrote opinions explaining the prison sentence and cited the Supreme Court ruling. There were more than 5,400 people sentenced for crack offenses in 2003, the latest year for which statistics are available. Last week, a federal appeals court overturned sentences in two Rhode Island cases included in the study, ruling that a judge wrongly substituted a 20-to-1 ratio for Congress’ 100-to-1 ratio. The defendants received five years, four months and 15 1/2 years, respectively, when the guidelines called for at least seven years, three months and 19 1/2 years, respectively.