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April 14, 2006

Should prior military service reduce a sentence?

This interesting federal sentencing story from Alabama, entitled "Soldier gets 5-year sentence," has me thinking again about whether guideline sentencing systems ought to provide (and regulate) sentencing reductions for military service.  Here are highlights from the article:

Patrick Lett seemed to have everything going for him, including a 17-year Army career that saw him rise to the rank of sergeant and serve honorably in the Iraq war and Operation Desert Storm a decade earlier.  But something went terribly awry in early 2004.  Lett, 37, of the Monroe County town of Peterman, fell in with some cousins who law enforcement investigators contend sold tens of thousands of grams of crack cocaine in the Monroeville area.

Lett pleaded guilty in December to seven counts of distribution of crack.  On Thursday, U.S. District Judge William Steele, who appeared moved by Lett's story, sentenced him to five years in prison -- the minimum allowed by law. Defense attorney Glenn Cortello said his client also faces expulsion from the military.

The prison term is 10 months shorter than the punishment recommended under advisory sentencing guidelines, but the judge rejected a request Cortello to cut the prison time.  A judge could order a shorter sentence by ruling that the mandatory-minimum sentence would be unconstitutionally excessive.

I often think of honorable military service and other past good deeds by a defendant as the flip side of criminal history.  Criminal history, after all, is just a past record of prior bad deeds, and every sentencing system (guideline or otherwise) provides for sentence enhancements (often huge enhancements) based on such a record of prior bad deeds. 

Doesn't it make some logical sense for a sentencing system to similarly provide for sentence reductions based on a notable record of prior good deeds such as military service?  Especially during a time of war, wouldn't a sentence reduction based on honorable military service serve as a tangible way to recognize and reward service to our country?

April 14, 2006 at 09:12 AM | Permalink


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Lett admitted his crime, while Nancy Bistrup took the matter to trial.
“Lett admitted to selling crack to undercover officers on seven separate occasions between Feb. 24 to April 1 in 2004. The drugs added up to a little more than 60 grams and netted $2,100.”

"The district court sentenced Nancy Bistrup to ... two years of probation for her role in the offenses”.
I cannot help but look at the number of people injured by the Bistrup’s fraud of over 3 million dollars compared to the paultry sum of 2 thousand dollars for a hand full of powder. Does cocaine injure, no doubt, and often times, the addict unable to stop steals money to support his habit? But when comparing the two, Lett voluntarily entered the military and placed himself in the line of fire, so that Nancy would be free. Lett will be in prison 5 years while Nancy will be home. Cannot Lett better continue to serve his country while on probation and make restitution in the form of community service while Nancy makes restitution in the form of one million dollars.
I spent 8 years in the Marine Corps and 16 years in prison for drug crimes, that is 24 years under federal authority and not much difference in the living conditions, food or housing. Lett will have 22 years after 5 years in prison, isn’t that excessive for a two thousand dollar crime.

Posted by: Barry Ward | Apr 14, 2006 10:08:53 AM

Wow, Doc, that's a great state-level bill idea. It could have legs. Hmmmm ...

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Apr 14, 2006 10:49:49 AM

You've got to be kidding me. What about those who think that waging war is immoral to begin with? Would they think military service was a mitigating factor? Or what about those who believe that drugs should be decriminalized? Would they think there was even a crime in the first place?

That aside, I'm not sure you can argue that a history of doing some particular non-criminal (in a legal sense) "good" (in some subjective sense) activity is any better than a lack of prior criminal history. By that logic, those Catholic priests should do hardly any time for child molestation and abuse.

(BEG - 1 unit away from being a certified paralegal)

Posted by: BEG | Apr 14, 2006 1:08:07 PM

Maybe your next unit will be on the difference between apples and oranges. Don’t you think the judge took into consideration the fact that the priests used their position as clergymen to gain access to children and in the same token if Lett had worn his uniform as a recruiter to gain access to children, then it should be used against him. It is purely an individual determination and there should be additions and subtractions, not just, if you haven’t been convicted previously, you all stand in the same pond. There is a difference between having served your country in the military and not haven taken up arms against your country. I am a certified paralegal with 8 years in the USMC, 16 years in prison and 15 years practical experience as a post-conviction paralegal

Posted by: Barry Ward | Apr 14, 2006 2:25:40 PM

I truly feel in this case as in others that a persons good deeds should not be frowned upon. In this particular case you have someone who has experienced things in his life that no one can imagine. Then sees the error in his ways and makes life altering decisions to make his life and the life of his children better. For someone to compare the life of this man and his case to that of Catholic priests is deplorable. His actions in no way mirror that of the Catholic priests. Each case should be treated on its merits and the particulars of the case. So my personal opinion on this case is that the judge made the correct decision.

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Posted by: Tourism Dissertation | Jan 8, 2010 2:41:53 AM

Can courts still do that? Can a criminal court judge sentence a person to military service as an alternative to jail. Can a prosecutor mandate that someone join the military as an alternative to criminal prosecution?

Posted by: karen | Feb 8, 2014 8:00:16 AM

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