Advocates calling for less draconian federal sentencing guidelines for crack possession were handed a bit of good news recently by, of all entities, the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Dec. 10, the land’s highest court ruled that judges had the right to determine whether sentencing guidelines for crack-related offenses actually fit an individual’s crime. If not, judges could hand down shorter sentences. With Justices Thomas and Alito dissenting, the 7-2 ruling means that the once “mandatory” guidelines have now become discretionary.
This is important, says public defender Tom Hillier, because it allows a judge to take into account a defendant’s history, factoring in, for example, his or her mental health, military history, or employment status. It can also, he adds, upend “obviously racist” guidelines that have handed those guilty of possessing crack cocaine sentences 100 times greater than those caught with powder.
“It’s a real important and positive change in federal sentencing policy,” says Hillier.
Mixed news for women
The state’s Supreme Court handed Washington women a mixed bag in recent weeks.
In Hegwine v. Longview Fibre Company, the court ruled that Longview Fiber Company had wrongfully terminated the employment of respondent Stacy Hegwine after discovering she was pregnant. Her pregnancy, the company claimed, prevented her from some of the lifting her job required.
The court upheld a ruling in the Washington Court of Appeals that had determined Hegwine’s firing had been an instance of sex discrimination; the court will convene to determine damages.
The court also refused a new trial to petitioner Brenda King, who had only been able to afford legal counsel for part of her divorce proceedings. King argued that, because her divorce settlement determined custody of her children, she had a constitutional right to counsel. The court ultimately found that public funding was not constitutionally guaranteed for divorce cases.
“While I’m disappointed, I’m not entirely surprised,” said Katie O’Sullivan, who represented King. “There was no prior case that clearly guaranteed representation.”
Funding to revive a long-dead rental housing inspection program died in the course of City Council budget negotiations this fall. But outgoing councilmember Peter Streinbrueck called a hearing Wed., Dec. 12 on plan B: launching a year-long study of how the city, with the consent of area landlords, might set up and pay for routine inspections of the city’s rentals.
The program died in the early ’90s, when landlords argued the city’s inspectors didn’t have a warrant, wrote council president Nick Licata last month in his Urban Politics newsletter. This year, the state’s highest court said they could resume — if a landlord-approved inspector conducted them.
The full council will hear the proposal by the end of the year.