Two significant cases were decided by the Supreme Court Monday, giving federal judges new authority to set sentences for crack cocaine crimes below federal guidelines in Kimbrough v. U.S., and impose sentences below specific guideline ranges while still having them be regarded as “reasonable.” in Gall v. U.S..
There are bound to be ripples.
The Court in Gall overturned an Eighth Circuit decision holding that below-Guidelines sentences were “reasonable” only if justified by “extraordinary circumstances,” professing the use of deferential abuse-of-discretion standards. “The Guidelines are the starting point,” the Court said, “but not the only consideration.” After both parties have argued their case for a particular sentence, the trial court judge should consider all factors, and make a decision based on the facts presented. If he decides on a sentence outside of Guideline ranges he has to consider the extent of departure from those ranges and explain his chosen sentence “to allow for meaningful appellate review and to promote the perception of fair sentencing.”
Kimbrough held that federal sentencing guidelines for cocaine convictions were advisory, rejecting a Fourth Circuit ruling that they were “effectively mandatory.”
Citing Booker, Rita v. U.S., and Gall, the Court in Kimbrough stated that “Booker rendered the Sentencing Guidelines advisory, but preserved a key role for the Sentencing Commission. In the ordinary case, the Commission’s recommendation of a sentencing range will ‘reflect a rough approximation of sentences that might achieve §3553(a) objectives’ [Rita, slip op. @ 11]… The sentencing judge, on the other hand, is ‘in a superior position to find facts and judge their import under §3553(a) in each particular case’ [Gall @ 13]
“Significant issues remain to be resolved,” a Legal Times article this morning noted, “including how much weight the guidelines must be given, as well as the retroactivity of the decisions to those sentenced under stricter standards.”
That, in part, would be up to the Sentencing Commission—which is meeting this afternoon. “As many as 20,000 convicted drug offenders could be released or have their sentences significantly reduced,” according to ABC News.