Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

Heather Mac Donald, in an opinion piece in a recent Wall Street Journal argued that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is getting a bad rap over his decision to reinstate emphasis on mandatory minimum sentencing and that those minimum sentencing requirements themselves get a bad rap.  She’s right on both counts.

Sessions is being smeared as being a racist over his decision because most of the criminals impacted are black—never minding that most of the crimes involved are committed by blacks, and against blacks to boot (another part that’s carefully elided by the smearers).  The sentencing guidelines (for that’s all that they are; they are not mandatory, for all that timid trial and appellate judges make them so out of their loathe to sentence based on the actual circumstances out of rank fear that they might get overruled by a higher court) also get a bad rap because Sessions’ decision is aimed at serious and violent crime commissions, not the small fry.  The ones aimed at with Sessions’ ruling are the drug dealers, murderers (acknowledging the considerable overlap between the two), assaulters, home invaders, and the like.  Not at risk from minimum sentencing “requirements” are the non-violent, the petty, the drug users, and so one.

As Mac Donald put it in defense of minimum sentence requirements,

Mandatory minimum sentences are a valuable tool for inducing drug dealers to cooperate with prosecutors in identifying fellow members of large drug-trafficking networks.

One small aside on that: mandatory minimum sentences also are valuable tools by prosecutors for intimidating an unconvicted defendant into plea-bargaining independently of his guilt or innocence.  Both sides of this question are supported only by extensive anecdotes, though, not demonstrated trends.

For all that, say Mac Donald is right on her main point.

But her point is irrelevant.  Mandatory minimum sentences are wrong on their face.  Sentences should be handed up by juries, not by judges or by sentencing checklists in a computer.  If I beat my wife and sell drugs to a friend a few blocks away, I’m committing crimes against our two neighborhoods—mine and my wife’s and that of my friend’s—not against New York City or Washington State, or even my home State of Texas.

My crimes are against the local communities in which my friend and my wife and I live, and I should be sentenced like I’m tried: by a jury of my peers drawn from my community and my friend’s, the communities against which my crimes were committed, i.e., the district wherein the crime shall have been committed.

Sentencing requirements, whether mandatory or guideline, destroy that capacity, they destroy the local community’s ability to decide for itself what is the appropriate punishment to be meted out for any crimes committed against it.

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