Friday, January 06, 2006

Appeals court decision upholds crack cocaine sentencing ratio

A federal appeals court has ruled that judges cannot ignore federal

Guidelines enacted by Congress require judges to use a ratio treating one gram of crack cocaine like 100 grams of powder cocaine when they sentence convicted crack dealers. The increase in weight can trigger longer prison sentences.

The decision comes one year after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the guidelines are advisory, not mandatory, for judges crafting sentences.

In Providence, U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Torres opted for a 20-to-1 ratio instead of 100-to-1 when he sentenced two convicted crack dealers, Shawn Lewis and Sambath Pho, in September and October. The U.S. Attorney's office appealed the decision, arguing that only Congress can create policy.

In Thursday's ruling from the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, Judge Bruce Selya overruled Torres, but acknowledged the judge's "thoughtful attempt to deal with a problem that has tormented many enlightened observers."

Critics have derided the 100-to-1 ratio as racist, saying it causes many black drug dealers to receive longer prison sentences than white dealers who sell powder cocaine.

The U.S. Sentencing Commission recommended Congress adopt a 20-to-1 ratio in 2002, but lawmakers never acted on the proposal.

While judges can take into account case-specific considerations when deciding a sentence, Selya said they still must consult the guidelines and cannot ignore policies set by Congress.

The appeals court ordered a new sentencing for Pho and Lewis.

Pho's attorney, Edward Roy Jr., said he's considering whether to appeal the latest decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.


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