Clark had to sentence several young gang members to federal prison for selling crack in Springfield. He had no say, no input in the sentences; federal sentencing guidelines called for specific punishments. If Clark pulled a downward deviation -- going below the guidelines -- the U.S. attorney would immediately appeal and a new judge would impose what the prosecutor wanted.
Clark was especially anguished because crack sentences were much harsher than those handed out for powder cocaine sales. It's still that way. Crack is a 100-to-one drug. Sell one ounce of crack, get the same sentence you would for selling 100 ounces of powder.
The judge thought the guidelines and crack sentences were wrong. He thought that what he was doing was madness. "But I have no choice," Clark said.
The world became a little less insane on Monday. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that judges can use their discretion when issuing sentences. And the high court made it clear that harsher sentences for crack are wack.
Linda Greenhouse's piece in The New York Times is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the issue. The essence:
It is now clear that while judges should consult the guidelines, they are just one factor among others and do not carry any special weight. It is also clear that an appeals court must have a very good reason of its own to displace the trial judge’s judgment.