WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. judges can impose lighter prison sentences than federal guidelines specify, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday in cases involving crack cocaine and ecstacy that could add pressure to overhaul sentencing practices.
In a racially sensitive issue, the justices overturned a U.S. appeals court ruling that judges cannot hand down a lighter punishment simply because they disagree with wide disparities for crack and powder cocaine sentences.
Blacks account for about 80 percent of the federal crack cocaine convictions. The guidelines call for lighter prison terms for the sale of powder cocaine, a drug more popular with whites and Hispanics.
In a related ruling, the court also supported the right of judges to depart from sentencing guidelines in a case involving distribution of the drug ecstasy.
Both rulings were by 7-2 margins — decisive votes by a court often ideologically split on major issues.
But dissenting Justice Samuel Alito argued that the rulings, which significantly broaden a judge’s sentencing flexibility, could make sentence disparities wider, not narrower.
The decisions come a day before the agency that sets guidelines for federal sentences is to vote on whether to make retroactive a reduction in recommended crack-cocaine penalties.
There is also pressure in Congress to revise a 1986 law mandating longer sentences for crack, which is considered more addictive than powder cocaine and a source of street violence.
“The decision particularly comes at such a strategic time,” said Kara Gotsch, advocacy director at the Sentencing Project. “The momentum (for change) is unprecedented,” she said.
The 1986 law gives first-time offenders convicted of selling five grams of crack cocaine the same five-year mandatory prison sentence as dealers of 500 grams of powder cocaine. The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines within sentence ranges passed by Congress, incorporated the 100-to-1 ratio.
Critics have called the disparity unfair and racially biased, leading to claims of inconsistency in the nation’s judicial system.
The crack-cocaine sentencing guidelines finally were lowered on November 1. A first-time offender with five grams or more now faces 51 to 63 months in prison, down from the 63 to 78 months that had been in effect.
Monday’s decisions by the highest U.S. court built on a 2005 decision that sentencing guidelines were advisory rather than mandatory in nature, and that reasonable departures were permissible by a sentencing judge.
The crack ruling involved Derrick Kimbrough, who is black. He received a 15-year prison term for selling crack and powder cocaine, as well as possessing a firearm, in Virginia.
The trial judge rejected as excessive the prison term of 19 to 22 years called for under the guidelines.
A U.S. appeals court ruled the judge’s disagreement with the disparity for types of cocaine was not a valid reason to depart from the guidelines.
The Supreme Court disagreed in a majority opinion written by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She said the appeals court “could not rationally conclude that that the 4.5 year sentence reduction Kimbrough received qualified as an abuse of discretion.”
Justices Alito and Clarence Thomas dissented in both cases. “If judges are required to do no more than consult the guidelines ... sentencing disparities will increase,” Alito wrote.
In that case, the court upheld a judge’s decision to give a lighter sentence. Brian Gall was convicted in Iowa of conspiracy to sell the drug ecstasy. He was given probation, instead of the 30 to 37 months in prison called for under the sentencing guidelines.