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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with a strong signal sent by the Supreme Court today in a ruling on drug sentencing. The justices told federal courts not to be so eager to second-guess sentences meted out by trial court judges. What's more, by a 7-to-2 vote, the court said it is reasonable for a judge to consider the wide disparity in penalties for crack versus powder cocaine.

NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.

NINA TOTENBERG: It used to be that judges had wide discretion in sentencing. But in 1984, Congress set up a commission to establish guidelines that would promote more uniformity nationwide. For all practical purposes, the guidelines were binding. But two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the guidelines could only be advisory, otherwise they'd be unconstitutional.

Since then, however, federal prosecutors, backed by the appellate courts, have continued efforts to limit trial judges' discretion, telling them that any significant deviation from the guidelines was not acceptable.

Today, the Supreme Court, by a 7-to-2 vote, basically put an end to that practice, telling the lower courts that advisory means exactly what it says: that judges should consider the guidelines, but not be bound by them.

Sentencing specialist Douglas Berman teaches at Ohio State University Law School.

Professor DOUGLAS BERMAN (Law, Ohio State University): Both opinions, independently and certainly read together, are strong statements that district courts are making reasonable judgments here even when they go below the guidelines, and that circuit courts should not be micromanaging those judgments.

TOTENBERG: The court's first ruling today involved the widely disparaged disparity in sentences for people convicted of crack cocaine versus powder cocaine crimes. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, crack cocaine offenders have typically been sentenced to 50 percent more jail time than powder cocaine offenders.

In the case before the court, a judge sentenced a Gulf War veteran with no felony record to the mandatory minimum under the statute of 15 years in prison for dealing 50 grams of crack. But the judge refused to add on another four and a half years required under the guidelines.

The 15-year penalty was enough punishment, he said, adding that the guidelines were ridiculous. A federal appeals court reversed the sentence, declaring that anything outside of the guidelines is per se unreasonable. But today, the Supreme Court sided with the trial judge.

Writing for the court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized that the guidelines are purely advisory. And she said that while a sentencing judge must consider the guidelines, he is not bound by them. Although Congress in the 1980s apparently believed crack more dangerous, she said, subsequent research by the Sentencing Commission has disproved that theory, and judges are free to try to ameliorate the enormous disparity as long as they stick to the mandatory minimums called for by the statute.

In a second case today, the court upheld a sentence of probation-only for an Iowa man named Brian Gall, who had, for seven months, been part of a drug Ecstasy ring while in college. Gall had been hooked on drugs himself and after buying and selling Ecstasy for seven months, he had some sort of a wake-up call. He quit, telling the dealers he'd been doing business with that he wanted nothing more to do with them. Gall went on to graduate from college and start a successful business.

Four years after he quit the ring, the drug dealers were caught and implicated Gall to win favor with prosecutors. Contacted by federal agents, Gall admitted his one-time involvement, and after he was indicted, pled guilty. The district court judge rejected the three-year sentence called for by the sentencing guidelines and instead sentenced Gall to three years probation.

But a federal appeals court overruled the sentence, calling it unreasonably light. Today, the Supreme Court disagreed, calling the decision reasonable. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the seven-justice majority, said the appellate court had abused its discretion by substituting its judgment for that of the trial judge who had a better appreciation of the facts.

The dissenters in both of today's decisions were Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

The rulings will likely lead to less uniformity in sentences. Trial judges will have more discretion to sentence as they see fit, meaning that there is the possibility of both lighter and harsher sentences. For the most part, though, the scales of justice are likely to tilt a little more towards lighter sentences. That's because prosecutors have, until now, been very successful in appealing sentences they consider too light and getting them reversed, as they did in the two cases today. Now, the Supreme Court has weighed in and told the appellate courts to butt out.

In addition, the U.S. Sentencing Commission has recently changed its own crack and powder cocaine guidelines in an effort to reduce the disparity between the penalties for the two drugs. Tomorrow, the commission is set to vote on making the new guidelines retroactive. That would cut the disparity by 17.7 percent for up to an estimated 19,500 prison inmates. On average, that would mean a reduction from twelve and a half years in prison to ten and a half.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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