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7th Circuit says life sentence for crack dealer doesn’t violate Eighth Amendment

7th Circuit says life sentence for crack dealer doesn’t violate Eighth Amendment

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The Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment does not preclude a mandatory life sentence for dealers who possess a smaller quantity of crack cocaine than the quantity of powder cocaine necessary to trigger a similar sentence, the 7th Circuit has ruled.

The defendant was convicted of four drug-related felonies, including possession of more than 50 grams of crack cocaine with the intent to distribute. Because he had two prior drug felonies and possessed more than 50 grams – the jury found he had 579 grams in his possession – he was subject to a mandatory life sentence.

He appealed, arguing that the imposition of a life sentence for a smaller amount of crack cocaine than the quantity of powder cocaine necessary to trigger a similar sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.

But the court disagreed.

Although the legislature significantly decreased the disparity between sentencing for crack and powder cocaine crimes under the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, Congress chose to retain a gap, the court noted.

“Congress has addressed any national consensus issue in the Fair Sentencing Act,” the court said.

The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding in Graham v. Florida that life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional allowed the court to adopt a categorical prohibition on mandatory life sentences without parole for crack cocaine dealers.

The “mandatory” nature of a life sentence does not necessarily make it cruel and unusual, the court said, and a life sentence does not need to be attended by particularized consideration of the offender’s character and record to make it appropriate.

U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Circuit. U.S. v. Ousley, No. 11-2760.

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