September 30, 2007

Softer on Crime?

The Los Angeles Times reports on a growing backlash against mandatory minimum sentencing laws, which, of course, can lead to absurdly long prison sentences in cases where they clearly aren't warranted. One example: A 52-year-old woman with a history of mental illness was recently sentenced to 159 years in prison as an "accomplice" after her live-in boyfriend pleaded guilty to a series of armed robberies in Montana. Then there are all of the absurdly steep "minimum" sentences for non-violent drug crimes, and so on.

Judges are getting even more vocal about the need for more leeway. As best I can tell, United States v. Booker, in which the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing guidelines should only be "advisory," didn't change much. But the Court's hearing two new cases on Tuesday: one dealing with how closely judges have to follow the guidelines, the other dealing with the 100-to-1 disparity in punishments for crack and powder cocaine, a disparity that hits poor black Americans hardest. (The United States Sentencing Commission has just proposed to reduce the penalties for crack offenses, though Congress can still veto the proposal.)

We'll see if things actually change. Somehow I can't see the Roberts Court going all mushy. But it's hard to imagine that anyone's still unaware of the problems with having a massive prison state. Just read any of the dozens of new books on the subject. Even some hardcore Republicans like Jeff Sessions support reform. It was also nice to see Barack Obama outline some semi-concrete proposals last week, such as a promise to "review mandatory minimum drug sentencing." But, all that said, there are still plenty of Democrats wary of doing anything that could get them tagged as "soft on crime," and two decades of sentencing policies certainly aren't going to be reversed overnight.
-- Brad Plumer 11:25 PM || ||