This week the Supreme Court addressed a case, which brought the issue of the disparity in sentencing between powder cocaine and crack cocaine into the forefront of national politics. For those of you who aren’t aware of the imbalance, it goes a little something like this: federal law enforces a 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine (two substances that are almost identical, chemically). This basically means, if you push five grams of crack (about the size of a poker chip) you are sentenced to a mandatory minimum of five-years in prison. However, it would take five hundred grams of powder cocaine to warrant the same sentence. Now I’m sure you’re all scratching your heads, wondering what the big difference is between the two drugs that would merit such an astronomical difference in the corresponding sentences. It’s actually quite simple; cocaine dealers/users are overwhelmingly white, while crack dealers/users are tend to be Black. This was the subject of the Supreme Court case, Kimbrough v. U.S. I will let the Washington Post provide a brief synopsis of the case:
The case before the court involved Derrick Kimbrough, an African American military veteran arrested in Norfolk in 2004 with 92 grams of powder cocaine and 56 grams of crack cocaine. Mr. Kimbrough had to navigate two sets of sentencing schemes. By pleading guilty, Mr. Kimbrough guaranteed for himself a prison term of 10 years — the minimum sentence mandated by Congress for a crime involving 50 grams or more of crack. (Mr. Kimbrough also faced an additional mandatory minimum five-year term for possession of a handgun.) The penalty was stiff — especially considering that Mr. Kimbrough would have had to possess 5,000 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same sentence — but it could have been worse. Under the separate federal sentencing guidelines, he could have faced at least 14 years behind bars for the drug charge alone… In the end, Mr. Kimbrough was sentenced to 15 years in total, rather than the 19 to 22 years called for under the guidelines. (Washington Post.com)
The reason Kimbrough got off with with 15, as opposed to 22, years in prison was because the Judge presiding over the case had a conscience. Judge Raymond A. Jackson’s bold decision not to follow the guidelines and deliver the maximum sentence grew from his personal feeling that the crack/cocaine disparity was “ridiculous”. I imagine Judge Jackson’s thought process went a little something like this; “hmm.. If Kimbrough had 7 less grams of crack, and 4,000 more grams of cocaine, he his sentence would have been sliced in half. That’s ridiculous – and racist.” This was a dangerous maneuver on Judge Jackson’s part. For all intents and purposes, he took the law into his own hands, and made the moral decision not to uphold a law that he felt was unjust. This was the issue being discussed before the Supreme Court. Not whether or not the law was fair, but whether or not Judge Jackson had the legal right to ignore federal regulations. The appeals court, responded immediately;
Judges are not free to impose sentences shorter than the guidelines based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Or are they? If a law is clearly unfair, biased, discriminatory or racist is it not the Judge’s obligation to deliver a sentence, which upholds the Constitution’s fundamental claim that “all men are created equal”? I think so. The Virginia Court of Appeals thinks not. I guess the Jury is still out.