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High Court Rules on Drug Sentencing Disparities

Since the mid 1980s, federal guidelines have imposed harsher penalties for dealing crack cocaine (also known as cocaine "base"), than for dealing powder cocaine, a more potent form of the drug. It's a discrepency that many lawyers and civil rights activists have argued unfairly punishes African-Americans, who are most likely to be convicted for peddling crack cocaine.

But yesterday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling giving federal district judges more discretion in how they arrive at sentences in crack cocaine cases.

The ruling comes just a month after the U.S. Sentencing Commission changed sentencing guidelines in an effort to reduce the disparity. The commission will now decide whether to make that change retroactive, which could shorten prison terms for nearly 20,000 inmates — an estimated 10 percent of the entire criminal population in federal prison.

Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree and Julie Stewart, of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, discuss implications of the high court's ruling.

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