Numerous attempts to emphasize the racial issue in crack-related crimes are not likely to exert any influence in southern Texas. In Texas, most of such cases and sentences are held in states courts.
According to last week’s ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, judges are supposed to have the discretion to cut prison terms for federal inmates convicted of cocaine-related crimes. That means that the sentences of over 340 inmates are likely to be affected in the south of Texas. Statewide, the number increases to 1,600 inmates.
But Supreme Court ruling will not affect the jail time of the nearly 30,000 inmates convicted on drug-related offenses in the state courts, which are not subject to federal sentencing guidelines.
Consequently, changes at the federal level amount to a mere "drop in the bucket" and don't address the disparity in sentencing for drug crimes at the state level, said some officials.
"Generally speaking, the Feds have bigger fish to fry," said Tony Fabelo, director of research at the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.
A native of Virginia, Derrick Kimbrough, was arrested when found possessing 92 grams of cocaine powder, 56 grams of crack cocaine and a gun. The sentencing guidelines stipulated a prison term of 19 to 22 years. After taking into account Kimbrough’s employment record and military service during the first Gulf War, the judge imposed a 15-year sentence. The shorter sentence also took into account the guidelines’ disparate treatment of crack and powder cocaine: a 19- to 22-year sentence would have required the possession of 5,000 grams of powdered coke.
Kimbrough’s 15-year sentence is no slap on the wrist. Gall could find himself in prison if he fails to complete the terms of his probation. And the Supreme Court’s decisions mean that trial judges would have the option, under other circumstances, to impose longer sentences than are called for by the guidelines. The rulings require neither leniency nor toughness, but acknowledge the need for trial judges to do what their hearts, their minds and their guts tell them about the cases before them.
Sentencing guidelines should not make judges into robots. They and the defendants before them are human beings — and in human affairs, justice requires the ability to use judgment.