For roughly two decades, federal trial judges have chafed under the constraints of federal sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums that often forced them to hand down inordinately long sentences. Those injustices have been most pronounced in drug cases, particularly those involving crack cocaine. In two opinions released this week, the Supreme Court handed back some flexibility to judges and increased the chances that justice - not just retribution - will be exacted in future cases.
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By 7-2 votes, the justices concluded that trial judges have the leeway to impose more lenient sentences in drug cases than those called for by the federal sentencing guidelines. To pass legal muster, the sentences must be "reasonable" and "sufficient, but not greater than necessary" to "promote respect for the law, provide just punishment for the offense" and "protect the public from further crimes of the defendant."
One decision concerned Derrick Kimbrough, who was arrested in Norfolk in 2004 with 92 grams of powder cocaine, 56 grams of crack and a gun. He faced 19 to 22 years behind bars, in large part because of the high penalties for crack offenses; he would have had to possess 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to get the same sentence. After considering Kimbrough's record of steady employment and his military service during the Persian Gulf War, the trial judge concluded that Kimbrough should serve roughly 15 years.
In the second case, Brian Gall, along with seven others, was indicted in Iowa in 2004 for conspiracy to sell ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana. The conspiracy, according to the indictment, ran from 1996 to 2002. Gall, a former drug addict, sold ecstasy for roughly seven months in 2000 but stopped using drugs one month after he began selling them and pulled out of the drug trade a few months later. He subsequently earned a college degree and worked in construction before starting his own company. When he was indicted, Gall had been drug-free and law-abiding for roughly four years. The presiding judge determined that the 30- to 37-month sentence called for by the guidelines was unjust and counterproductive. He sentenced Gall to 36 months probation.
The justices rightly rebuffed the government's challenge to the reduced sentences. They recognized the wisdom of allowing those closest to the ground - the trial judges - to assess how best to exact justice in individual cases, even while endorsing the guidelines as a means to avert wide disparity in sentences nationwide.