Sunday, August 24, 2008
Today, two of the most controversial issues in sentencing law -- the length of sentences for crack cocaine offenders and judges' ability to go outside the federal sentencing guidelines -- will intersect in arguments at a federal appeals court panel sitting in Atlanta.
The five cases from the Southern District of Florida, consolidated for oral argument at the 11th Circuit, have the potential to affect many other cases throughout Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The appellate chief at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta, Amy L. Weil, said she'd seen about a dozen motions by defendants in the Northern District of Georgia alone that raise the same issue.
In each case before the court today the defendant was convicted of a federal crack cocaine offense and sentenced before more lenient crack cocaine sentencing guidelines went into effect in November. Each is trying to get a new sentence based on the change in the guidelines but has been stymied because prosecutors argue they were sentenced as career offenders. (see below for related case briefs.)
Crack cocaine sentencing guidelines have been criticized because the sale, manufacture or possession of crack carries a much harsher sentence than that for a similar amount of powder cocaine. The disparity has been described as a 1-100 ratio, meaning a small amount of crack is equivalent under the sentencing guidelines to a large amount of cocaine. Defenders of the disparity in sentencing have said that crack is more likely to be linked with crimes of violence, while critics note that the harsher crack guideline disproportionately affects African- Americans.
In December, the U.S. Sentencing Commission made retroactive the changes to the quantity guidelines that govern federal drug sentences. Those changes had reduced by two levels the base offense that applies to crack cocaine, which can amount to a difference of a few months or several years. In a press release, the commission called the change "only a partial step in mitigating the unwarranted sentencing disparity that exists." [Mark Godsey]