Earlier this week, we began a discussion about a shift in judicial opinion. Specifically, one notoriously tough judge is leading the battle cry for sentencing reform for low-level drug offenses and other small-time infractions. Though Judge Gleeson has made a name for himself partially for handing down tough sentences for violent and high-level offenders, he strongly believes that mandatory minimums for low-level offenses are disproportionally harsh.
Mandatory minimums in drug cases in particular tend to be unduly harsh when compared with the severity of the crimes. However, when prosecutors insist on invoking mandatory minimum laws, judges have no choice but to follow the letter of the law.
Reforming mandatory minimum laws in certain circumstances would allow judges greater discretion to weigh various contributing factors in each case. Though such discretion may make the system somewhat less predictable, it would also allow for more proportional sentencing and a greater sense of justice within the system overall.
To this end, Judge Gleeson recently implored Attorney General Eric H. Holden Jr. to reform Department of Justice policy regarding mandatory minimums. He wrote: "[The] D.O.J. should seek mandatory minimum sentences only in the cases for which Congress intended them: in cases against leaders and managers of drug enterprises, not the low-level offenders... who constitute the bulk of the federal drug docket."
Ultimately, prosecutors have some leeway in whether or not they choose to invoke mandatory minimum laws in singular cases. However until the Department of Justice more uniformly seeks proportional punishments for low-level offenders, voices like that of Judge Gleeson serve as a valuable reminder that the goal of the system is justice for all, not harsh conviction for harsh conviction's sake.
Source: New York Times, "A Tough Judge's Proposal for Fairer Sentencing," Adam Liptak, May 28, 2012