Drug Policy

Shorter Drug Sentences, Courtesy of the Supreme Court


Speaking of crack sentences, today the U.S. Supreme Court, which two years ago declared the federal sentencing guidelines merely advisory, ruled by a 7-to-2 vote that judges are free to give defendants lower sentences than indicated by the guidelines because they disagree with the differential treatment of crack vs. cocaine powder. The decision does not apply to the mandatory minimum sentences set by statute, but it should result in shorter sentences for some crack offenders and smaller disparities in punishment between people caught with crack and people caught with cocaine powder.

Two other decisions issued today also will help ameliorate drug sentences. In one, the same seven-justice majority (with Alito and Thomas in the minority) said sentences that depart from the guidelines should be judged by "a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard." Applying this standard, the Court said a judge acted within his authority when he gave an entrepreneur who went straight after selling MDMA in college probation rather than the sentence of two and a half to three years recommended by the guidelines. In the third case, the Court unanimously held that receiving a gun in exchange for drugs does not amount to "using" a firearm in the course of a drug offense (which triggers a mandatory minimum sentence), although it had earlier held that receiving drugs in exchange for a gun does.

[via Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy