Crime and PunishmentJamie R. -- Monday, August 18, 2003 -- 07:48:13 PM
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If you ask exactly that question: "Do you favor tough mandatory sentencing rules?", maybe. If you make it clear what the rules are, as in "Do you favor a mandatory ten year sentence for a man who knowingly bought a stolen car, and had no prior criminal history of any sort?" (roughly accurate statement of the case I worked on. I actually don't remember the exact sentence, and I'm thinking that the fifteen years I quoted above might have been high) then I don't think support would be very high. If you further ask "Do you support this system if the sentences are mandatory only from the point of view of judges, but can be negotiated down to zero by a prosecutor?" I think that would erode support further.
I was referring to what I think the support would be if a serious effort was made to repeal mandatory sentnecing standards, so that people would be listening to proponents of both sides debate, and answering in a much more informed and nuanced way than any of your questions imply.
I don't think that major changes to mandatory sentencing rules are politically possible. Perhaps there are a few specific laws that could be changed without much outcry, but not many.
Really? I disagree. I believe mandatory sentencing guidelines were sold to people without fully thinking through the consequences. Nor do I think people understand the power prosecutors now have in bargaining down sentences by how they charge the defendant. At least with judicial discretion the whole process is visible, unlike now, where it takes place behind closed doors.
I actually think this is a very viable area for further reform. Several on the Supreme Court also dislike these mandatory sentencing guidelines and have hinted that they'd like the legislature to re-think them.
By "people" here you must be referring to those people who don't watch television, because plea bargains are a pretty much nightly occurance.
Of course judges dislike them, they are a direct slap in the face of the judiciary.
Just to be clear, I think mandatory sentences are stupid, and would rather trust the judiciary. But I believe myself to be in the minority on this.
Yes, of course, but the situation now is that by removing judicial discretion the power of the prosecutor in the plea bargaining process has greatly expanded.
I really think this is just a time bomb of abuse waiting to explode and when it does, the public will again do their "aw shucks how could this have happened" routine.
My take is that the mandatory sentencing guidelines just moved the "discretion" aspect from a more neutral judiciary to a less neutral prosecutor's office. Most DA offices work too closely with the police, and have too much at stake politically, IMHO, to always be as impartial as possible. There is a LOT of pressure to convict, and a lot more media coverage of the DA than of the judge. To me, the strict mandatory sentencing, especially for petty crimes, has caused a noticable erosion in the balance of powers in this country, and has contributed mightily to the high incarceration rate.
You betcha. And as familiar as everyone is with plea bargaining, I think people really do believe that mandatory sentencing means "a criminal's sentence is determined only by the crime, not by anyone's discretion" rather than "there's just as much discretion in the system as ever, but now it's all in the hands of the prosecutor rather than the judge."
I think the voting public wants the right thing, BTW, which is a truly neutral justice system. The problem is, it is made up of people, and people have their own motivations and needs. I agree that judges did/do make some ludicrious rulings, but procecutors are no less immune to bad decisions either.
And I think, that more than fairness or anything else, right now most people just want more criminals in jail. Most people still think our justice system is too lenient. So any attempt to shorten sentences is not going to have popular support.
But I don't think folks want wrong-place-wrong-time people in jail, or petty criminals in for years and years.
A case in point is a relative of mine. Typical troubled teen with cauliflower for brains. Got nailed at age 17, with friends, for stealing a stop sign and minor marijuana possession (a few joints). Decided to "handle things on his own" and was treated as an adult in the judicial system. Pleaded to both counts and received deferred adjudication, but *his folks were never notified*. Missed some of his required classes (see cauliflower comment) and was arrested. This was the *first* his folks heard about it, and even though they hired a lawyer at this point, kid was sent to jail for a nearly a year. Cauliflower-for-brains was pretty messed up by the whole prison experience, in all the ways you'd expect.
His folks did a total 180 after going through this. They used to be the hard-on-crime conservative Republican types. Once they got a look up close as to what prison can do to a young adult, and how fast he was whisked off for a petty crime (we checked - this really was his first arrest), they started rethinking things a bit. BTW, this all took place in Williamson County, Texas, a place known for its hard-ass DA. As the lawyer said to me: "If the kid had been bright enough to steal a stopsign a mile down the road in Travis County, he'd have been spanked and thrown into rehab. It's location, location, location, just like n real estate."
But the vast majority of people don't have loved ones that have done hard time. So their opinions are not affected by those kinds of stories, they are much more likely to be or care about victims of crimes than criminals in jail.
Do you think their opinions are unaffected because they haven't heard those kinds of stories, or because they have heard them and don't care?
I find that I can get a pretty reliable "You can get 10 years for buying a stolen car!??!!" reaction out of people when I tell the story I told above -- people seem generally to be both pretty unaware about what mandatory sentences practically amount to, and fairly horrified when they find out.
There was a story in the paper last week I think, about the increased costs of keeping very elderly prisoners in jail, utilizing hospice programs and so forth. People might want to reconsider if they think it's going to cost them a lot keeping an increasingly aging prison population around till they're 80+ years old.
But the vast majority of people don't have loved ones that have done hard time
But this is changing, especially with the mandatory minimums for drug possession.
they are much more likely to be or care about victims of crimes than criminals in jail.
There is rising media coverage about the long term ramifications of having so many people in jail, especially WRT recitivism rates. I hear far fewer stories these days about the murderer-who-got-off-and-went-on-to-kill-again, than I do about the guy-who-bought-a-used-car-and-now-faces-years-of-jail-time-for-theft-conspiracy.
I think a debate is beginning on the fairness and accuracy of who we are actually putting away, and the long term costs of our high incarceration rate.
Xpost with LB and Em
I think they hear them and think, probably a no good punk who deserves it. I know my reaction to the story you told above was that the guy was probably guilty (of knowing that the people he bought from dealt in stolen cars).
If the crime rate stays fairly low for a long time, as the prisoner population ages and seems less dangerous perhaps people will be willing to revisit sentencing standards. I don't think they will be for at least several years though.
But guilty or not (and he could have been guilty, there just wasn't much, if any, evidence to that effect) doesn't ten years for buying a stolen car shock you? It generally seems to shock people I tell in person, but of course I'm telling the story so their reactions are biased.
j ross, I agree that some folks will always have the "he must have been guilty otherwise he wouldn't be in that position" attitude, but I think they are in the minority. Just like I think the "everyone can be cured by therapy so we don't need prisons at all" folks are, too. The majority, though, lie in the middle, and many of those form opinions based on media coverage. Pendulums swing.
What jacked the sentence so high for my guy is that under the USSG a major factor is the total amount of money involved. The car ring was very big, and the amount of money his sentence was being calculated on was the total value of all the cars involved, which was in the millions.
Me? nah. I long since gave up expecting any kind of rationality or fairness in criminal sentencing.
The reason things like that don't shock many people is that most crimes are never prosecuted, so they figure everyone who is caught is probably guilty of ten or twenty crimes that he got away with. Obviously this kind of thinking screws over the relative innocent who gets caught the first try, but the reverse gives an unwarrented break to the guy who only gets caught after the 81st time he knocks over a convenience store. You just aren't going to find much sympathy for crooks in America. People have been yiping about mandatory sentencing for 15 years and no one has been listening. I don't see that changing any time soon.