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Judges to Congress: Let Us Issue The Punishments, Not You

One of the problems in the criminal justice system is the existence of mandatory minimum sentences. On the federal level, these are laws imposed by Congress that require judges to sentence a guilty offender to a minimum amount of time behind bars. This one-size-fits-all approach is flawed because it does not allow judges to exercise discretion based on the individual circumstances of the case.

In fact, the American Bar Association has long stated “that mandatory minimum sentencing laws are incompatible with the requirements for just sentencing and we support their repeal by Congress.”

In their own words, here is why these current or retired judges oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws:

  • U.S. District Judge John Gleeson: "Mandatory minimums, to some degree, sometimes entirely, take judging out of the mix. That's a bad thing for our system…We talk about numbers, but at the end of the process it's not a number that's getting the sentence. It's a person, a person with a family from a community."

  • U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett: “As a federal district judge in Iowa, I have sentenced a staggering number of low-level drug addicts to long prison terms. This is not justice…If lengthy mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug addicts actually worked, one might be able to rationalize them. But there is no evidence that they do. I have seen how they leave hundreds of thousands of young children parentless and thousands of aging, infirm and dying parents childless. They destroy families and mightily fuel the cycle of poverty and addiction.”

  • Former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Patricia Wald: “As a matter of policy, mandatory minimum sentences raise a myriad of troubling concerns. To satisfy the basic dictates of fairness, due process and the rule of law, criminal sentencing should be both uniform between similarly situated offenders and proportional to the crime that is the basis of conviction. Mandatory minimum sentences are inconsistent with these twin commands of justice.”

  • Former U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell: "A mandatory minimum is a sentence that says a judge has to impose a particular minimum number of years. It ties the judge’s hands… mandatory minimums can be used to send a message, but at some point the message gets lost.”

  • Former U.S. District Judge Nancy Gertner: "As a federal judge for the past 17 years, I have had the unpleasant task of sentencing people to lengthy sentences for drug offenses, all the while knowing that the sentences did not promote fairness, much less contribute to public safety…I couldn't take into account the circumstances of the [offender's] life: how he got to that point, the extent to which he was living on the streets, whether or not he had a substantial record.”

Shouldn't we listen to these judges?