A funny thing happened on the way to District Court
June 29, 2004 10:26 AM   Subscribe

A funny thing happened on the way to District Court. More mandatory minimum madness. See related story to the case here. More guidelines are being passed everyday. This Massachusetts judge has had enough. Are we destroying judges' ability to mete out justice or should the people decide justice through legislation? NYTimes coverage here.
posted by McBain (12 comments total)
Prosecutors are deciding sentences rather than judges, and mandatory minimums have given them that power. What do we do about this? Can any politician seek reform without being accused of being "soft on crime"?
posted by McBain at 10:34 AM on June 29, 2004

I don't know what the percentages are, but I'd be willing to put good money that a large percentage of the crimes that have sentencing guidelines are drug-related.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:39 AM on June 29, 2004

Read The Death of Common Sense for a history of how we got here (not just in mandatory sentences, but in overspecificity of law). It is a quick and provoking read (even if you don't agree with all of its conclusions).
posted by obfusciatrist at 10:56 AM on June 29, 2004

Families Against Mandatory Minimums has a lot of good information on this subject (check out the Sentencing Issues section and the case profiles).
posted by luyon at 11:18 AM on June 29, 2004

Of course, the argument on the other side is that without sentencing guidelines, defendants can receive vastly different sentences for exactly the same crime depending on which judge they happen to appear before and which part of the country they happen to live in.

We may not really care whether Texas punishes people for breaking Texas law more severely that New York punishes people for breaking New York law. But I think it is a problem if federal judges in Texas are punishing people more severely for breaking federal law than federal judges in New York. Federal law ought to be enforced uniformly throughout the country, and this is very difficult to do in a country as big and culturally diverse as ours.

I'm not necessarily endorsing the sentencing guidelines as they are currently written, but I do think that they are attempting to address a very legitimate concern. I also think that the linked opinion aptly points out many of the flaws in the system. The question is how should we balance the competing interests of individual fairness and uniform enforcement.

Also, judges DO have the power to "depart downwards" from the guidelines if they find certain mitigating circumstances in the case.
posted by boltman at 11:42 AM on June 29, 2004

boltman: Not to be disrespectful, but how many crimes are "exactly the same"? How many times does exactly the same crime occur in two different states, with the same mitigating and aggravating circumstances?

I'd wager it happens a lot less often than vastly DIFFERENT crimes being prosecuted under the exact same law.
posted by u.n. owen at 12:17 PM on June 29, 2004

boltman: true, judges can depart downwards, but those mitigating circumstances are tightly controlled and are vigorously opposed by prosecutors as a matter of policy [cite]. I also agree that sentencing guidelines are probably a good idea in general, but the degree to which they lock in judges at present is altogether too rigid.

More generally:
It was my experience as a fly on the wall of the federal judiciary that these guidelines are most cruel in regards to narcotics violations. The minimum sentences are exceptionally harsh, especially in the area of crack cocaine. Sentences are based on the amount of material recovered and while powder and crack are more-or-less the same thing, crack is sentenced at 100x the cocaine weight [cite]. Others have pointed out that powder vs. crack usage tends to break along class and race lines so the guidelines arguably unfairly target the poor and minorities [cite].

One particular case that I 'processed' galls me to this day and involved woman who pled to possession of 1 gram of crack--which was all that was found on her person--but sentenced for several kilograms because she was sentenced concurrently with her estranged husband who was convicted of receiving more than 1 kilo of crack. They did not live in the same domicile and were arrested in different places and at different times.

Anyway, I guess this begins to fall under the recent SC decision to require the jury to find all relevant facts used in sentencing--overturning the practice of construing possession. But it is the combination of inflexible sentencing guidelines and this ability to construe acting together that cause the problems. This practice allowed judges/prosecutors to take a < 1g possession plea and manufacture a possession with intent to distribute level sentence. oh, and the statutory minimum of a five year to life sentence for possession of a firearm while committing a drug-trafficking or violent felony is abused wholesale too. mind you, the firearm need not be material to the commission of the felony, merely possessing a firearm in the general vicinity of the scene is enough according to case law. this sentence must run consecutive to any other sentence and cannot be reduced [a href="">cite].

Good stuff, our criminal justice system. although it is one of the better criminal justice systems out there
posted by Fezboy! at 12:26 PM on June 29, 2004

err, the last link
posted by Fezboy! at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2004

Fezboy -- it will be interesting to see what happens to the sentencing guidelines given the recent SCOTUS case. It soulnds like it will change the sentencing process pretty dramatically in some cases.

But as for your points, it seems to me that to the extent that punishments are outrageously disproportionate to the crime (i.e. for crack users), most of the blame has to be leveled at Congress for creating those crazy penalties, and not at the sentencing guidelines, which, after all, was simply an attempt by the federal sentencing commission to codify Congressional intent and existing judicial practice.

un owen: "how many crimes are "exactly the same""

Well, the guidelines were created precisely because many people felt that there were significant disparaties in sentencing between different judges that simply could not be chalked up to mitigating or aggrevating factors within the case itself.

There's no question that sentencing ought to be somehow customized to fit the particular facts of a particular case. Some people deserve to be locked up longer than others even if they're convicted of exactly the same crime. But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't expect uniformity on the macro-level. If the average drug dealer in Texas is getting locked up for 10 years more than an average drug dealer in New York for violating the same law, I'd say that there's a problem can't be chalked up to the specific circumstances.

The baseline principle, I think, is that punishing people for crimes is very serious business and it ought not to be determined based on whether you get a "nice" judge or a "mean" judge. Sentencing guidelines are intended to suplant judicial discretion but to provide boudaries for it. I think such guidelines at least have the potential to make criminal justice more just rather than less. Whether the current guidlelines are fair is another matter entirely.
posted by boltman at 4:08 PM on June 29, 2004

sentencing guidelines? Why not just go all the way and have robots as judges? They're fair, they can't be corrupted....
posted by Miles Long at 4:21 PM on June 29, 2004

Well, the guidelines were created precisely because many people felt that there were significant disparaties in sentencing between different judges that simply could not be chalked up to mitigating or aggrevating factors within the case itself.

I suspect the far more likely situation is media coverage where a victims family or just a journalist looking to start shit, covers a case in a really crappy way and politicians are asked over an over again to get tough on crime for no particularly good reason other than media coverage of the system seemingly being leniant tends to enflame ignorant pricks.
posted by McBain at 11:51 PM on June 29, 2004

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