The Supreme Court will consider the proper judicial response to the sharp disparity in the way the law treats crack cocaine and cocaine powder, reports the New York Times. The court will address a growing rebellion among judges who have been issuing sentences lighter than those called for under the federal sentencing guidelines for criminals convicted of crack cocaine offenses. Federal appeals courts are divided on whether judges are permitted to exercise such discretion.
The lower courts have been trying to ease the impact of a 21-year-old federal law that imposes the same five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of 5 grams of crack, a bit more than a fifth of an ounce, as for 500 grams, or 1.1 pounds, of cocaine powder. The justices selected an appeal filed by the federal public defender's office in Virginia on behalf of Derrick Kimbrough of Norfolk, who pleaded guilty to two counts of possessing and distributing more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. Taking account of Kimbrough's criminal history and other factors, including a gun possession charge that added a mandatory five-year sentence, the federal guidelines called for a range of 19 to 22 years. Judge Raymond Jackson called such a sentence “ridiculous” and gave Kimbrough 15 years. He noted that Kimbrough had served in combat in the Persian Gulf war, had received an honorable discharge, and was gainfully employed, with just misdemeanors and no previous felonies on his record. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected Jackson's reasoning and ordered resentencing.