from the throwing-people-away dept
One judge found out just how out of touch federal sentencing guidelines are when he did something out of the ordinary: he asked the jury's opinion. (via Simple Justice)
The crime was one of the most universally-loathed: the collection and distribution of child porn. And the perpetrator was completely unsympathetic.
When government agents used cutting-edge software to hack into the hard drive of Ryan Collins’s computer, they found more than 1,500 sexually-explicit images of children, some of whom were younger than twelve. The agents also discovered file-sharing programs, indicating that Collins may have been distributing the pornography online.Even when faced with someone as apparently damnable as Ryan Collins, the jury's suggested sentence was lower than the sentencing guidelines called for. Far lower.
Collins was unrepentant, even after a jury in Cleveland, Ohio convicted him of possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. The prosecutors sought the statutory maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment, and the federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed a term of as long as 27 years.
Before dismissing the jury, [Judge Gwin] asked each member what they thought would be an appropriate sentence for someone who had downloaded child pornography. According to Gwin, the average of the sentences they recommended was only 14 months.This admittedly-small sampling shows that mandatory sentencing guidelines do not match up -- at all -- with what the public believes to be fair and just. These guidelines are supposedly written on behalf of the general public, with Congress and other government bodies acting to "protect" us from drug dealers, sex offenders, hackers, etc. by locking them away for extended periods of time. But it appears the public may still feel "protected" without putting child porn enthusiasts behind bars for a quarter of a century.
And it's not just Judge Gwin's peculiar query -- although he appears to be the first to make this line of questioning public. Other judges have heard similar answers from jury members, behind the scenes.
Iowa district court judge Mark W. Bennett:
"Every time I ever went back in the jury room and asked the jurors to write down what they thought would be an appropriate sentence -- every time – even here, in one of the most conservative parts of Iowa, where we haven't had a 'not guilty' verdict in seven or eight years – they would recommend a sentence way below the guidelines sentence."Why wouldn't judges ask the jury's opinion on sentencing? After all, it's supposedly composed of the accused's "peers." They're entrusted with determining guilt or innocence, but somehow can't be trusted to offer up a worthwhile opinion as to the "reasonableness" of the sentence recommended by Congress? Those intimately familiar with the details of the case should at least be trusted to give their view on the ensuing sentence. Their view is no less informed than that of their representatives, who mostly deal with criminals and the criminal justice system in the abstract -- and are often far more inclined to appease the prosecutorial half of the equation than appear to be "soft on crime."
Judge Gwin's informal jury straw poll shows that the word "justice" -- in the context of mandatory sentencing guidelines -- is nothing more than a prosecutorial term of art, completely removed from the actual definition of the word.
All those people being sentenced to decades in prison under the pretense that it’s what society wants and needs is revealed, as Judge Bennett says, as baloney. While the Sentencing Commission won’t heed the defense lawyer perspective, perhaps a few federal judges making this point clear might carry sufficient weight to end the needless destruction of a life or two under the draconian guidelines. For the rest, maybe they will start taking the admonition of § 3553(a), “sufficient, but not greater than necessary.” seriously.As for Judge Gwin, he did what he could in response to this gaping disparity by sentencing Collins to the minimum allowed under the guidelines -- five years, or roughly four years longer than the jury felt was reasonable or just. The prosecution had recommended the maximum -- 27 years -- a number so far removed from the public's sense of justice it may as well have been a number pulled out of thin air by a government lawyer who had stumbled into the wrong courtroom.
We're imprisoning people at an alarming rate in this country, and the nation's unofficial hobby shows no sign of slowing. And we're doing it for far longer than the public itself feels is necessary. We're destroying lives by taking criminals out of circulation for decades at a time, based on little more than Congressional appeasement of professional moral panickers and the law enforcement officials who love them. The fact that so many of our prisons are now run by private corporations makes the situation worse, because nothing pays better -- or more consistently -- than cell after cell of long-term "tenants."