WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court agreed for the first time yesterday to reconsider the long prison terms meted out to the mostly black defendants who are convicted of selling crack cocaine.
At least 25,000 defendants per year are sent to federal prison on crack-cocaine charges, and their prison terms are usually 50 percent longer than drug dealers who sell powder cocaine.
This disparity, with its racial overtones, has been controversial for two decades since Congress ramped up the "war on drugs" in response to a crack-cocaine epidemic that was sweeping many cities.
Crack was targeted for stiffer penalties because it was viewed as more potent and dangerous than powder cocaine.
At the time, lawmakers set mandatory minimum prison terms for drug sellers based on the quantity of drugs sold. A sale of 5 grams of crack cocaine triggers the same five-year prison term as selling 500 grams of powder cocaine, even though they are the same substance.
Critics have said this 100-to-1 disparity is unfair and racially biased because dealers in crack cocaine are more often black, while powder cocaine is said to be sold more often to whites and by whites.
But until now, neither lawmakers, the Justice Department nor the courts have been willing to lessen the prison terms for crack dealers.
In a speech to the American Bar Association four years ago, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy called these mandatory minimum sentences "unwise and unjust." He urged the lawyers to lobby Congress to repeal the mandatory minimum sentences.
Despite pleas from family members and legal activists, the laws have remained unchanged.
For its part, the Supreme Court did not signal a willingness yesterday to say these sentences are unconstitutional. Instead, the justices agreed to decide whether trial judges should have more leeway to impose somewhat lighter sentences in crack-cocaine cases.
In the fall, the justices will hear the case of a convicted drug dealer from Norfolk, Va., who was given a 15-year prison term for selling both crack and powder cocaine.
The trial judge noted the U.S. sentencing guidelines called for a prison term of between 19 and 22 years, in part because the crack-cocaine sale raised the stakes.
But he also noted that the defendant, Derrick Kimbrough, had served honorably in the U.S. Army during the first Persian Gulf war and had been a construction worker in the years since then.
But prosecutors appealed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled the defendant must be given the 19- to 22-year prison term called for in the sentencing rules.
Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that these sentencing rules are guidelines, not mandates, but it remains unclear whether trial judges are free to impose lighter sentences than the range set by the guidelines.
David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.