By Alan Bean
Over at his excellent Sentencing Law and Policy blog, Doug Berman highlights an amazing opinion recently issued by US District Judge Jack Weinstein in the case, United States v. Bannister. (You can find the full opinion here.) Federal judges aren’t as constrained by mandatory minimum sentences as they once were, but Jack Weinstein makes it clear that the sentences in this case would have been much less severe if he had his druthers.
“These defendants are not merely criminals,” Weinstein concludes, “but human beings and fellow American citizens, deserving of an opportunity for rehabilitation. Even now, they are capable of useful lives, lived lawfully.”
The eighty-nine year old Weinstein is a philosophical dinosaur who believes we have a duty to create a just society (what kind of socialist claptrap is that?) Read this brief excerpt from a much longer sentencing opinion and you will learn precisely what is wrong with America’s war on drugs.
Several of the sentences in this case, imposed only because of statutory minima, are disproportionate to the crimes committed and the backgrounds of the defendants. Their excess causes particular concern when applied to youthful defendants. That concern is multiplied by their imposition upon young defendants subject to abuse, poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, unemployment, illiteracy, and learning disability, largely attributable to their backgrounds.
Had the defendants been raised by cohesive, adequate families, most of the difficulties they encountered would probably never have come to pass. Well-resourced, attentive parents would have had the knowledge, ability, and insight to protect their children from many of the difficulties that befell these defendants in their youth, to obtain assistance to deal with their psychological and physical problems, and to obtain crucial opportunities for education, work, and personal growth. Even those with learning disabilities would likely have been provided available resources to overcome their impairments at public expense. That the defendants were born into circumstances without such support is at the center of this tragedy.
As part of defendants‘ sentences, it has been ordered that every reasonable effort be made to provide counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, gambling rehabilitation, anger management therapy, education, and job training while defendants are incarcerated and during supervised release.
Considering the limited resources devoted to such rehabilitative measures, however, it is by no means clear that these aids will be effectively provided. When the defendants are released from prison, they will probably have to return to all of the problems that led them to engage in crime. Whatever tenuous connection they retain to the lawful, supportive world will likely be diminished after years of forced separation in prison. Incarceration will make entry into the job market more difficult. Remaining will be the root problems that have largely brought them to this pass: poverty; dysfunctional families; mental and physical problems; legal and de facto housing segregation; segregated and inferior schools; and an economy that appears to have little need or concern for low- and semi-skilled workers. Such individuals constitute a permanent underclass with almost no opportunity to achieve economic stability, let alone the American dream of upward mobility.
These problems are concentrated among low-income African Americans, but they affect the country as a whole. Our rates of imprisonment, income inequality, and unemployment are either the highest or among the highest of the world’s advanced economies, while our rates of food security and life expectancy are among the lowest.
Significant reforms are needed in our sentencing regime. The Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010 reduced the dubious 100:1 powder/crack ratio to a 17.8:1 ratio. It did nothing to remove the sentencing regime’s dependence on arbitrary drug quantities — not just with regard to crack cocaine but other drugs as well — that bear little relationship to the harm a defendant has done to society or to the danger of his inflicting further harm. Harsh, disproportionate mandatory sentences impose grave costs not only on the punished but on the moral credibility upon which our system of criminal justice depends.
Judges approach the grave responsibility of sentencing criminals with all the thoughtfulness and limited insight that their knowledge and wisdom can muster…. Mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, leaving no alternative but lengthy incarceration, prevent the exercise of this fundamental judicial duty. Such laws are ― overly blunt instruments, bringing undue focus upon factors (such as drug quantities) to the exclusion of other important considerations, including role in the offense, use of guns and violence, criminal history, risk of recidivism, and many personal characteristics of an individual defendant. It is difficult to conceive of a system of mandatory minimum sentences that could effectively anticipate and provide for such factors.
For nonviolent, low-level drug crimes, the goals of incarceration — general and specific deterrence, incapacitation, retribution, and rehabilitation — could in most cases be achieved with limited incarceration, through a system of intense supervised release utilizing home visits; meetings with parole officers; a combination of counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, education, job training, and job placement; and electronic monitoring to prevent flight, promote positive choices, and deter and detect incipient crime. Such a regime would likely be more effective in reducing crime and much less costly than imprisonment. Given discouraging economic, social, and psychological conditions, it seems doubtful that the long sentences of incarceration imposed will appreciably reduce crime.
Pragmatism and a sense of fairness suggest reconsideration of our overreliance on incarceration. Though defendants are hemmed in by circumstances, the law must believe that free will offers an escape. Otherwise, its vaunted belief in redemption and deterrence — both specific and general — is a euphemism for cruelty. These defendants are not merely criminals, but human beings and fellow American citizens, deserving of an opportunity for rehabilitation. Even now, they are capable of useful lives, lived lawfully.