The Judicial Conference and mandatory minimums

Today, the chair of the Judicial Conference Criminal Law Committee wrote in support of Congress’s efforts “to review and ameliorate the deleterious and unwanted consequences spawned by mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

The press release from the Administrative Office and the letter from Judge Robert Holmes Bell was prompted by a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on reevaluating the effectiveness of federal mandatory minimum sentences. The Judicial Conference has a long-standing policy of opposing mandatory minimum sentences.

In his letter, Bell also expressed “strong support” for legislation such as the “Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013” that would “help avoid the fiscal and social costs associated with mandatory minimums.”

Aside from my disagreement with the assertion that “cost containment” policies for the judiciary ought to inform the length of supervised release terms, and while not agreeing entirely with all the other reasoning in Judge Bell’s letter, I am strong supporter of doing away with statutory mandatory minimums except in rare circumstances. In short, statutory mandatory minimums impede the drafting of thoughtful sentencing guidelines by the expert body created by Congress to write those guidelines–the Sentencing Commission.

Regarding “cost” and “supervised release” issues, Judge Bell briefly discusses those issues at pages 3-4 of his letter. Note that the judge believes that reducing supervised release terms will save the judiciary money, but he also argues that the risk of reducing prison terms can be ameliorated by supervised release conducted under auspices of the judiciary.  If that is true, one should surely doubt that there will ever be any true cost savings for the judiciary by fiddling around with statutory minimums. By the way, I entirely agree that reducing costs to the Bureau of Prisons (a creature of the Executive branch) by releasing more people earlier from prison is likely to result in a net cost savings to the government as a whole because it is truism that it costs more to house a prisoner than it costs to supervise that same offender in the free world.  That said, on the cost issue, the judiciary cannot preserve the proverbial cake while eating it too. But, my disagreement on this “cost” issue is a quibble in the greater scheme of things. Except for rare cases, mandatory minimums should be abolished.


4 responses

  1. Ordinary sentencing laws are meant to control the behavior of ordinary people. Mandatory sentencing laws are meant to control the behavior of judges.

  2. Dear Judge,

    I agree. By the way, I am all for controlling the behavior of judges at sentencing so long as that control is rational.

    All the best.


  3. Even with rational restrictions there are injustices. Years ago, when I was a county judge, an embarrassed first offender in her 60s pleaded guilty without an attorney to OWI. As the law then required, I suspended her driver’s license for 90 days. She expressed concern about how she would get downtown because she lived alone in the country, far from neighbors and public transportation. I told her that she would have to find a way or stay home, because the law allowed nothing short of that 3-month suspension. She responded: “But how will I get to chemotherapy?”
    I have never looked kindly on mandatory minimum sentencing since then.

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