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June 8, 2015

Extended profile of judge strugging with extended mandatory minimum federal drug sentences

Download (1)The Washington Post has this lengthy article discussing the sentencing struggles of US District Judge Mark Bennett. The piece is headlined "Against his better judgment: In the meth corridor of Iowa, a federal judge comes face to face with the reality of congressionally mandated sentencing." Here are excerpts from the first part of the piece:

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett entered and everyone stood. He sat and then they sat. “Another hard one,” he said, and the room fell silent. He was one of 670 federal district judges in the United States, appointed for life by a president and confirmed by the Senate, and he had taken an oath to “administer justice” in each case he heard. Now he read the sentencing documents at his bench and punched numbers into an oversize calculator. When he finally looked up, he raised his hands together in the air as if his wrists were handcuffed, and then he repeated the conclusion that had come to define so much about his career.

“My hands are tied on your sentence,” he said. “I’m sorry. This isn’t up to me.”

How many times had he issued judgments that were not his own? How often had he apologized to defendants who had come to apologize to him? For more than two decades as a federal judge, Bennett had often viewed his job as less about presiding than abiding by dozens of mandatory minimum sentences established by Congress in the late 1980s for federal offenses. Those mandatory penalties, many of which require at least a decade in prison for drug offenses, took discretion away from judges and fueled an unprecedented rise in prison populations, from 24,000 federal inmates in 1980 to more than 208,000 last year. Half of those inmates are nonviolent drug offenders. Federal prisons are overcrowded by 37 percent. The Justice Department recently called mass imprisonment a “budgetary nightmare” and a “growing and historic crisis.”

Politicians as disparate as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are pushing new legislation in Congress to weaken mandatory minimums, but neither has persuaded Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that is responsible for holding initial votes on sentencing laws. Even as Obama has begun granting clemency to a small number of drug offenders, calling their sentences “outdated,” Grassley continues to credit strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years, and he has denounced the new proposals in a succession of speeches to Congress. “Mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role,” he told Congress again last month.

But back in Grassley’s home state, in Iowa’s busiest federal court, the judge who has handed down so many of those sentences has concluded something else about the legacy of his work. “Unjust and ineffective,” he wrote in one sentencing opinion. “Gut-wrenching,” he wrote in another. “Prisons filled, families divided, communities devastated,” he wrote in a third.

And now it was another Tuesday in Sioux City — five hearings listed on his docket, five more nonviolent offenders whose cases involved mandatory minimums of anywhere from five to 20 years without the possibility of release. Here in the methamphetamine corridor of middle America, Bennett averaged seven times as many cases each year as a federal judge in New York City or Washington. He had sentenced two convicted murderers to death and several drug cartel bosses to life in prison, but many of his defendants were addicts who had become middling dealers, people who sometimes sounded to him less like perpetrators than victims in the case reports now piled high on his bench. “History of family addiction.” “Mild mental retardation.” “PTSD after suffering multiple rapes.” “Victim of sexual abuse.” “Temporarily homeless.” “Heavy user since age 14.”

Bennett tried to forget the details of each case as soon as he issued a sentence. “You either drain the bathtub, or the guilt and sadness just overwhelms you,” he said once, in his chambers, but what he couldn’t forget was the total, more than 1,100 nonviolent offenders and counting to whom he had given mandatory minimum sentences he often considered unjust. That meant more than $200 million in taxpayer money he thought had been misspent. It meant a generation of rural Iowa drug addicts he had institutionalized. So he had begun traveling to dozens of prisons across the country to visit people he had sentenced, answering their legal questions and accompanying them to drug treatment classes, because if he couldn’t always fulfill his intention of justice from the bench, then at least he could offer empathy. He could look at defendants during their sentencing hearings and give them the dignity of saying exactly what he thought.

“Congress has tied my hands,” he told one defendant now. “We are just going to be warehousing you,” he told another. “I have to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not,” he said a few minutes later.

June 8, 2015 at 09:30 AM | Permalink

Comments

I'm not a lawyer, just a scientist.

It seems to me that if this judge handed down a sentence that he felt was unjust then he is an amoral criminal, an enemy of mankind. The correct thing to do would be to persist in his own judgement, and continue until impeached and removed.

Posted by: Boffin | Jun 8, 2015 12:31:35 PM

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