Sentencing Reform Pushed In Congress
Key Quotes from the Reading Eagle, 1-5-14:
"About half of the nation's more than 218,000 federal inmates are serving time for drug crimes and virtually all of them faced some form of mandatory minimum sentencing."
"...the Smarter Sentencing Act. It would expand a so-called safety valve already on the books that gives judges discretion for a limited number of nonviolent drug offenders. The new law would give judges the same latitude for a larger group of drug offenders facing mandatory sentences."
On Jan. 5, 2014, the Sunday edition of The Reading Eagle published a story titled "Sentencing Reform Pushed In Congress." President Obama, along with his cabinet and Congress, raised the issue of a change in mandatory sentencing, particularly for nonviolent drug offenders. For my readers, does this ring a bell? As a result, Congressional sub-groups are pursuing are pursuing the elimination or the drastic change in mandatory minimum punishments amid growing concerns that the sentences are both unfair and expensive on the dollars again, does this ring a bell?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
I was not aware that about the time I began writing my book, Justice or Just This: A Constitutional Trespass, a blue ribbon committee of criminal justice experts from different parts of the country had begun in 2005 a five-year study that culminated in a 50-page social statement. It immediately faced two years of study and discussion and was completely adopted at the national E.L.C.A. Church Assembly in Pittsburgh in August 2013.
I learned of this work when the study was published three years ago. I am proud to say that I then participated, along with Bishop Samuel Zeiser, in the 15 county regional education seminars organized by the Northeast Synod of the ELCA (visit www.jeffreysprecher.com to learn more about this process).
I can summarize the work of those who developed the social statement by simple stating that I agree with its contents entirely. The report underlines the unanticipated and, thus unpredictable by-products, of our country's, 'tough on crime' philosophy, which has produced thousands of examples of incorrect, unjust unfair and illogical tragedies that criminal justice professionals have witnessed with horror, but were powerless to do anything about it.
"There's a Monster on the Loose." Sadly, that's what exists because so many people recognize the wrongs that have been created, but legislators do not pass laws to return sentencing discretion to the judiciary by nullifying mandatory minimum sentencing and disbanding the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. Judges are practically in office for life (at least one 10-year term) and thus are about the only people who can impose the sentences that need to be ordered rather than what is popular for re-election by throwing everyone in jail regardless of circumstances. I have mentioned several times that Pennsylvania legislators, both on and off the record, have admitted their mistake, but that they are afraid to eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing because the average voter will listen to the soft on crime rhetoric released by their opponents. Obviously the legislators fear that they will be voted out of office for not being tough. Tough on crime, what ever that means, is the image they seek. Soft on crime, which again is an arbitrary phrase, is a campaign flaw in the eyes of the average voter. We must insist that our elected officials slay the monster or it will continue to grow.
Please keep in mind that the term 'prison overcrowding' is a recent phenomenon that began immediately after Pennsylvania Commission of Sentencing became law in 1982. Within two years, Pennsylvania began building more new prisons (16 in the next 14 years) than the eleven built during the entire 160 years 1982!
I implore the reader to demand the elimination of the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission, which in reality really determines what sentences are imposed in our state. Elimination is the only improvement that can be made because nearly everyone follows the Commission's guidelines as if they are gospel. Consequently, even judges, year after year, follow the guidelines, and thus sentences are consistent with the commission's guidelines 90% of the time. Mandatory minimum sentencing must also be eliminated. When these reforms are applied, judges will be forced to intelligently decide every sentence in Pennsylvania. The judge will be responsible, not the prosecutor or the sentencing commission. And that is the way it has to be.
I must stress that both mandatory minimum sentencing and commissions on sentencing are recent events. Both grew in acceptance and thus opened throughout the U.S, in the last 40 years. For our entire history, Pennsylvania judges did the sentencing until someone got the bright idea to control judicial discretion and make sentencing a numbers game. The sentence is now determined by what point values are placed by the commission on prior offenses. That point value is then plotted against the new offense. The point values and the plotting of them allow anyone to compute the standard, aggravated and mitigated sentencing ranges for the prosecutor to offer as a plea deal.
The concept spread to all states and to federal government only because it was a no-brainer for legislators to vote to pass the laws. To do so shows they are tough on crime. It was free publicity stating that the legislator is doing his/her job by controlling sentencing and ensuring that judges impose sentences consistent with each other based on the plotting of the two factors. Simply put, everybody is treated the same. Justice requires that sentencing be consistent and the legislator is assuring that result. It is a simple winning concept.
The only problem is this is a myth. Offenses are charged and negotiate differently throughout the state depending on many variables: 1) the age, experience and philosophy of the police officer; 2) the volume of cases in the municipality; 3) the justice philosophy of the prosecutor; 4) the volume of criminal cases in the system and how many full is the jury trial list; 5) the age, health and related factors of the victim determining the likelihood that the victim will be available to testify at a trial; 6) how much of a priority a guilty plea is to save further exposure of the victim to reliving the case by testifying in a jury trial; 7) whether the defendant has private council or a public defender; 8) the experience, ambition and capabilities of the defense lawyers; 9) whether witnesses are cooperating and willing to testify. 10) whether the socioeconomic and political strata of the electoral voting public that elects the prosecutor and the mayor of the police department is blue collar or white collar.
The President, Congress, and the E.L.C.A. have all (finally) raised the need for reform. More citizens are learning that sentencing commissions and mandatory minimum sentencing practices were not the answer, and that their existence actually made matters worse. When will it change?
Next week in Part II: Quotes from sections of the 50-page report of the Task Force of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.