WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court called Monday for a retreat from the strict national sentencing guidelines set during the "war on drugs" of the 1980s, ruling that federal judges may set prison terms well below those recommendations.
Judges should be freer to impose a punishment that fits the criminal and the crime, the justices said in a pair of 7-2 decisions.
Sentencing guidelines: A headline on a Section A article in some editions Tuesday misstated the scope of two Supreme Court decisions. It said justices objected to federal sentencing guidelines that had led to disparities in cocaine- and gun-related cases. The objection was to guidelines that applied to cocaine cases. —
The court's call for a return to more individualized sentences will have its greatest impact in drug cases, but it will affect other federal crimes. "This ruling will have enormous impact in a whole host of white-collar cases," said Paul D. Kamenar, counsel for the Washington Legal Foundation.
In one case decided Monday, the court upheld probation for Brian Gall, an Arizona man who had admitted selling Ecstasy several years ago when he was in college in Iowa. The sentencing guidelines called for about three years in prison.
In the second case, the justices upheld a 15-year prison term for Derrick Kimbrough, a Gulf War veteran from Norfolk, Va., who was arrested after a gun and crack cocaine were found in his car. The federal recommendations called for a prison sentence of 19 to 22 years.
In both cases, Bush administration lawyers had argued for the longer prison terms and said judges should be required to follow the sentencing guidelines.
The Supreme Court disagreed, with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissenting.
The court's terse opinions rejected a key tenet of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which sought to bring about consistent punishment for federal crimes, regardless of where they occurred, by taking much judicial latitude.
Sentencing guidelines were supposed to ensure, for example, that a first-time bank robber who carried a gun would receive roughly the same prison term whether he came before a judge in Los Angeles or Louisiana.
The law also set up the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which laid out detailed guidelines that prescribed a narrow range of prison terms for particular offenses. For certain crimes, judges were bound by mandatory minimum sentences but could ratchet them up based on additional factors.
Federal judges chafed at the rules. They said that their hands were tied and that they were sometimes forced to impose harsh and unfair sentences. Over time, their complaints gained traction.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court made clear that the federal sentencing guidelines were merely "advisory." In Monday's rulings, the justices went a step further and said that judges sometimes were free to ignore the sentencing range and to set a much lower prison term when the facts called for it. The term, however, must still meet any established mandatory minimum sentencing law.
"The sentencing judge is in a superior position to find facts and judge their import in an individual case," said Justice John Paul Stevens. His opinion in Gall vs. United States was joined by six others, including Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who as a member of the Sentencing Commission from 1985 to 1989 played a central role in writing the guidelines.
It is not clear, however, whether the ruling means judges may impose sentences far higher than the guidelines.
In dissent, Alito faulted the majority for abandoning the guidelines: "It is unrealistic to think this goal [of reducing sentencing disparities] can be achieved over the long term if sentencing judges need only give lip service to the guidelines."
Thomas, also dissenting, said Congress "quite clearly intended" the recommended sentences to be binding on judges.
The impact of Monday's action is somewhat diminished because it does not affect the mandatory minimums set in law. Most crack cocaine defendants, including Kimbrough, must serve long prison terms because of those laws, not because of the sentencing guidelines.