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Supreme Court hears drug sentencing guidelines cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] Tuesday in Kimbrough v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 06-6330, in which the Court considered whether a district judge, in seeking to impose a sentence that is "sufficient but not greater than necessary," should have discretion to sentence a defendant to a prison term lesser than what is recommended by federal guidelines. US District Judge Raymond A. Jackson sentenced crack and powder cocaine dealer Derrick Kimbrough to 15 years in prison, despite the 19 to 22-year standard found in the U.S. Sentencing Commission guidelines [USSC materials]. Critics have said the Federal Sentencing Guidelines treat races unequally, as powder cocaine dealers face the same sentence as a crack cocaine dealer who traffics 1/100th the amount. The vast majority of crack cocaine defendants are black. In sentencing Kimbrough to 15 years, the judge called the higher sentence "ridiculous." The Fourth Circuit vacated Kimbrough's lesser sentence [opinion, PDF] and remanded for resentencing, holding that district court judges do not have authority to undercut the guidelines based on personal objections to perceived disparities.

The Court also heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF] in Gall v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; merit briefs], 06-7949, in which another circuit court ordered resentencing of a defendant originally sentenced below the guidelines. The Eighth Circuit ruled that it was unreasonable for a drug dealer selling MDMA, or ecstasy, to be sentenced below the guideline amount [opinion, PDF] without any special circumstances in the case. Gall pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute MDMA and was sentenced only to probation. AP has more.

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