By Brian Gilmore
The Supreme Court finally got it right on criminal sentencing this past week.
In two separate court opinions, the court agreed to restore discretion to judges in handing down criminal sentences.
This is especially important when it comes to drug cases. With the federal prison system full of individuals convicted for non-violent drug offenses, many of whom are African-American, it is good to know that rational thought has returned.
The facts in the second of the two cases decided this week, Kimbrough v. U.S., demonstrate how askew our sentencing has become.
Derrick Kimbrough, a Gulf War veteran discharged honorably, was arrested in Norfolk, Va., with more than 90 grams of powder cocaine. He also had in his possession 56 grams of crack. The powder cocaine was no big deal; Kimbrough was nearly 5,000 grams short of serious trouble under federal sentencing guidelines for the powder.
The crack, however, was another story altogether. Kimbrough was looking at 20 years in prison because the federal sentencing guidelines left the judge no discretion or flexibility (or so it seemed) to sentence Kimbrough to anything less.
Luckily, the federal district judge in the case, Raymond Jackson, refused to go along with the madness of the drug war anymore. He sentenced Kimbrough to a reduced sentence of 15 years for the crack and a gun charge. An appeals court overruled Jackson’s decision, and the Supreme Court heard the case.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the majority, clarified how the crack and powder cocaine issue should be handled: “The cocaine guidelines, like all other guidelines, are advisory only.”
The decisions are good news after about two decades of tragically misguided policy. They bring relief, especially to black families and black communities across the country.
The rigid and punitive drug sentencing guidelines blighted a generation of African-American men. African-Americans comprise “82 percent of those sentenced under federal crack cocaine laws,” according to the Drug Policy Alliance. This is despite the fact that most crack users are white.
Huge numbers of black men missed the technological advances of society in the 1990s and beyond. They have been kept from their families for years now. They have not been productive members of their communities.
What a waste!
The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a small step toward sanity when it comes to drug policy. Let’s recognize it and work for more.
Brian Gilmore is a lawyer, poet and writer based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at email@example.com.