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June 22, 2005

What about compassionate conservatism in the federal CJ system?

I have already set out this lengthy list of questions concerning AG Alberto Gonzales'  speech advocating a Booker fix in the form of "the construction of a minimum guideline system" (basics here and background here).  But I have to add one more: isn't there a place for compassionate conservatism in the federal criminal justice system?

Recall that, as detailed here, at Gonzales' confirmation hearing, Republican Senators Sam Brownback and Tom Coburn and Arlen Specter all talked about being smart on crime as well as tough on crime.   Gonzales responded that "people who commit violent crimes and are career criminals ... should remain in our prisons," but he also said that "there is a segment of the prison population ... first-time, maybe sometimes second-time offenders who can be rehabilitated."  Gonzales further explained, "I think it is not only smart, but I think it's the right thing to do.  I think it is part of a compassionate society to give someone another chance."

With those prior comments in mind, I found particularly jarring in Gonzales' speech yesterday that he assailed the sentencing in a tax evasion case from New York in which the sentencing judge apparently concluded "that the defendant's age and the need to take care of his wife ... now justified a lesser sentence."  But I suppose I should not be surprised by Gonzales' lack of compassion in that case after federal prosecutors in his Justice Department sought a 215-year sentence (!) for John Rigas, the founder of Adelphia Communications, who is 80-year-old and apparently quite sick.

Of course, there are lots and lots of federal defendants who deserve no compassion whatsoever at sentencing.  But what is troubling about Gonzales' proposed Booker fix is that he does not trust federal judges (most of whom, by the way, are Republican appointments) to make reasonable judgments about which defendants may deserve a bit of compassion.  Gonzales' proposed "minimum guideline system" apparently would preclude federal judges from ever showing a hint of compassion (even to non-violent, first-offenders) to go below the guidelines, though judges would presumably retain full authority to show the opposite of compassion and impose sentences above the guidelines.

June 22, 2005 at 12:46 PM | Permalink

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» What's Up With AG Gonzales? from Law Dork
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has been all over the news these past two days. From the explosive speech he gave advising a Booker "minimum-sentence guidelines" fix to the Chicago Tribune's extensive discussion of Gonzales in its just-as-explosive s... [Read More]

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» AG Calls for Floor, Not Ceiling, for Federal Sentences from ACSBlog: The Blog of the American Constitution Society
According to today's Washington Post: Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday called for a new system of mandatory minimum sentencing rules, contending that recent Supreme Court decisions have already led to "a drift toward lesser sentences" in ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 22, 2005 2:21:06 PM

» AG Calls for Floor, Not Ceiling, for Federal Sentences from ACSBlog: The Blog of the American Constitution Society
According to today's Washington Post: Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday called for a new system of mandatory minimum sentencing rules, contending that recent Supreme Court decisions have already led to "a drift toward lesser sentences" in ... [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 22, 2005 2:21:27 PM

Comments

Doug, they said "Only Nixon could go to China." Coming out in favor of compassionate sentences is the criminal justice equivalent of "going to China." So far, most Republicans with political ambitions aren't willing to "go to China" on this issue. The political calculus is rather simplistic: who among their constituents is demanding compassion for convicted felons?

The famous Justice Kennedy speech a few years back was about the closest I've seen to a leading Republican "going to China" on sentencing, but of course, Kennedy has no political ambitious. He never talked like that when he was on the Court of Appeals. Had he done so, he'd *still* be on the Court of Appeals.

Posted by: Marc Shepherd | Jun 22, 2005 1:32:03 PM

Not to sully the pristine waters of "the law" with politics, but one might argue this is simply par for the course for the current admininistration: Gonzalez SAYS one thing (touting second chances, compassionate conservatism, etc.) and then DOES the opposite (advocating for mandatory minimums, by definition destroying the idea of individualized, appropriate compassion). While Brownback, Coburn, Spector (and even Rep. Feeney!) have mentioned the idea of being smart on crime rather than just simply thuggish on crime, the political crystal balls of the aforementioned individuals tells me that their previous support for smarter sentencing amounts to little in the Bush policy department, while Big Al's speech serves notice of Admininstration's true intent. (after all, if we're really ok with the idea that we can hold Gitmo detainees "in perpetuity," what's a measly 55-year sentence for Angelos???) note the political aspirations of the aforementioned individuals: Coburn and Spector were just (re)elected during the 2004 cycle...lots of time before they need to worry about being tarred with a Willy Horton-esque brush in primaries from R's even further to the right, so they can feel free to talk about something that actually makes sense, without having to worry about electoral implications at the present time. Brownback wants to be President, so he needs to find some way to make himself palatable to the Christian right that now firmly controls the Republican party (and hence its primary) and, in theory, the general electorate, which will one day realize the absolute crime (no pun intended) that is the ever-expanding prison-industrial complex. Not that the Christian right is all that concerned with injustices in the criminal sentencing arena, but professing some (alleged) compassion for some first-time offender like Weldon Angelos with a demonstrably egregious sentence might be a way to burnish Brownback's "compassion credentials" without giving up the "conservative" he's obviously perfected. As for Feeney, who knows...but then again, I'm guessing he's not one of the 6 or so actually competitive House races, so he can talk out both sides of his mouth and still punch his ticket back to the D.C. Gravy Train. Given that Republicans control every level of government for the time being, if they really wanted to do something to advance "smart on crime" policies, they might, but they don't; see the political analysis of Mr. Shepard above. In today's bifurcated and distilled world as preached by Limbaugh et al., conservatives are the tough guys who don't take no shit from criminals, while lib'ruls are just pansies who want to let every rapist out of jail to rape your daughter. There is no such as "compassionate" conservatism, just passionate conservatism and (unthinking adherence to) "tough on crime" policies.

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