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This Just In: Federal Judges Can Be More Lenient in Sentencing Drug (and other) Crimes

By James F. Tierney

Yesterday, the Supreme Court released its decisions in two important cases about how judges sentence federal criminals: Kimbrough v. United States and Gall v. United States. Taken together, the cases increase individual judges’ discretion in how to sentence crimes, by allowing them to depart from the federal sentencing guidelines, which are “advisory” rather than binding on judges. Kimbrough upheld a lower sentence for crack possession, taking into account the vast and unfair disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine possession crimes, which often is a distinction drawn on de facto racial lines. Likewise, in Gall, the court explained that although judges should take the guidelines into account when conducting a case-specific analysis, they can set sentences below the guidelines when they think those lighter sentences are more “reasonable.” These decisions are rare good news about the federal government’s drug war: harsh sentences are often much more destructive than the drug use itself. Hopefully, judicial discretion will help people caught in the drug war: as the New York Times reports, “[b]elow-guidelines sentences have been given in 11.9 percent of cases, and above-guideline sentences in 1.6 percent.”

SCOTUSblog has more here.

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