Blog of Rights

Supreme Court Finds Cocaine Sentencing Disparities Unfair

By Anjuli Verma, Drug Law Reform Project at 4:47pm
Today's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Kimbrough v. U.S. represents a watershed in the history of drug sentencing. After two decades of escalating prison populations, the Court has finally signaled a changed in course, branding the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity as racially biased and fundamentally unfair. Beyond the thousands of defendants who will benefit from shorter sentences, this will surely have broader ramifications, especially in Congress.

The Supreme Court issued a 7-2 decision that federal sentencing judges are not required to apply the 100:1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, which the U.S. Sentencing Commission has itself rejected numerous times as unreasonable.

The ACLU filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, and we are thrilled with the Supreme Court's decision. For two decades, judges have been handcuffed to political decisions to impose ever harsher drug sentences. And even as critics have pointed out the cruelty and irrationality of those sentences, judges and politicians have marched lockstep toward incarceration of drug offenders. This decision marks a reversal in course, by articulating in clear, unmistakable terms that the most infamous of drug sentences is racist and wrong.

Not to overstate matters, but this decision could play a role akin to Brown v. Board of Education, though on a smaller scale. Brown did not directly end Jim Crow; rather, it articulated a notion of justice that rejected segregation. By giving the Court's imprimatur to racial justice, a movement marched forward in the states, the courts, in Congress and in the streets. Kimbrough, too, articulates a notion of racial justice in drug sentencing. Most narrowly, it allows federal judges more latitude to implement racial fairness. But it also gives Congress, state legislatures, and judges more broadly an invitation to finally bring a sense of racial fairness to our drug laws.

This is a good day for our work and for the prospects of reversing these past decades of imprisoning so many of our nation's people of color.

Hundreds of news outlets have covered today's decision, and we hope that they will highlight the fact that it isn't just the courts that have now rejected this law as unfair and ineffective.

Tomorrow, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is expected to issue a decision about whether it will apply important changes to the sentencing scheme for crack cocaine offenses retroactively - an action the Commission has consistently taken in the past with regard to sentencing reforms for other drug offenses involving LSD, marijuana and oxycodone. Given the extremely disproportionate impact that the crack cocaine sentencing disparities in particular have had on African-Americans, and widespread perception of racial bias within this specific sentencing scheme, we're keeping our fingers crossed that the Commission will do the right thing.

Congress is also actively considering taking the 100:1 disparity off the books altogether through legislation introduced by Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) that would fully equalize the sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

To learn more about why the crack versus powder cocaine sentencing disparity is unfair and ineffective, check out www.aclu.org/itsnotfair.

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