When Johnny Gunter got a 24-year prison term for possessing 72 grams of crack cocaine, he became one of thousands of drug defendants to receive a stiffer sentence because the drug was crack rather than powder cocaine, says the Philadelphia Inquirer. That was because a 1986 federal drug law established a two-tier sentencing differential – with tougher sentences for crack defendants – as a result of the view that crack triggered more violent crime. A federal appeals court in Philadelphia says judges can disregard the two-tier sentencing, which required 100 times more powder cocaine than crack for the same prison term.
In its 29-page ruling issued Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit vacated Gunter’s sentence, saying a trial judge erred in believing he was required to base a prison term based on the 100-to-1 ratio. Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal sentencing guidelines were advisory rather than mandatory, the appeals court said, judges must consider the differential for crack but are not required to impose sentences called for under the differential. Federal prosecutor Robert Zauzmer said the ruling was likely to be cited by every defendant in a crack case.