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Published: Monday, 6/28/2010

Unjust ruling

For years, the laws governing sentencing for crack and powder cocaine possession were out of sync with fundamental notions of fairness.

The crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s put pressure on lawmakers to treat one form of cocaine as inherently more toxic than another. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines, crack cocaine possession was treated 100 times more severely than powder cocaine possession.

A knee-jerk reaction to a deadly scourge always seems reasonable at the time, but the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing has proved to be racially discriminatory, lazy, and intellectually indefensible.

In 2005, the Supreme Court revisited sentencing guidelines for crack and powder cocaine. The court ruled that the guidelines should be advisory only.

Two years later, the Sentencing Commission made the Supreme Court ruling retroactive so that anyone sentenced under the guidelines when they were mandatory could petition for a reduction.

That's when Percy Dillon entered the picture. Mr. Dillon was convicted of crack possession and sentenced to 27 years by U.S. District Court Judge Alan Bloch in Pittsburgh in 1993.

Judge Bloch would have preferred sentencing Mr. Dillon, who was 24 at the time, to five years, but he had no discretion under the old law even though it was disproportionately more severe than when applied to those convicted of possession of powder cocaine.

Mr. Dillon, a model prisoner by all accounts, petitioned for his freedom having spent 17 years behind bars - more than three times the length of the sentence Judge Bloch considered fair in 1993.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard Mr. Dillon's appeal and noted his good behavior in prison, but ruled that a reduction of his sentence wasn't warranted. The court chose not to deal with the essential question at the heart of Mr. Dillon's appeal - that crack sentences were disproportionately high and thus unfair.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote a blistering dissent accusing the justices in the majority of overlooking substantial issues swirling around proportional sentencing and how those currently serving excessive terms can win relief. Justice Stevens pointed out the high cost of housing prisoners and how simple acts of justice could relieve escalating costs to taxpayers.

Justice Stevens is correct. The obtuseness of the Supreme Court is shocking because it is accepted by everyone that the crack cocaine sentencing disparity was unjust.

Many victims of unjust sentences continue to linger in prison for years beyond what would have been fair.

Is it asking too much for the Supreme Court to weigh the inhumanity of a law against whatever narrow criteria it would otherwise follow?

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