In our opinion: Mandatory sentencing: Let judges use judgement

Published: Thursday, Aug. 15 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Attorney General Eric Holder's recent call for reform of mandatory sentencing guidelines has garnered significant support from some prominent people on the other side of the aisle.

Jacquelyn Martin, AP

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In today's polarized political environment, partisans will often reject any message delivered by a messenger from the other party. But Attorney General Eric Holder's recent call for reform of mandatory sentencing guidelines has garnered significant support from some prominent people on the other side of the aisle. When the Obama administration can begin to find common ground with people like Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that's something that ought to hold the nation's attention.

There are a number of reasons to oppose current rigid guidelines imposed by mandatory sentences. Attorney General Holder and others see this primarily as a civil rights matter, since a disproportionate number of people incarcerated under such sentences come from minority populations. Others, like Rep. Chaffetz, stress the exorbitant cost of incarcerating non-violent offenders when judges are compelled to comply with arbitrary sentencing requirements. It's possible to approach this issue from a number of different political angles and still reach the same conclusion: Mandatory sentences are, by and large, a bad idea.

This should not be interpreted as a call for increased tolerance for crime. Indeed, judges must have the discretion to hand down sentences, even harsh ones, which are required both by law and by circumstance. Mandatory sentencing, however, unwisely shackles the judiciary in this regard and removes ironically the element of judgment from judging. It demonstrates a lack of confidence in the system. Nobody benefits when judges aren't allowed to judge.

In addition, the costs of mandatory sentencing are not just economic. Lengthy prison stays tend to solidify criminal habits instead of changing them. Statistically speaking, well over half of those who get out of jail will find themselves re-arrested and behind bars again within three years of their release. Studies demonstrate that the recidivism rate could be greatly reduced by rehabilitation programs that are administered with judicial oversight. Mandatory sentencing makes such efforts all but impossible in many instances, and that's not helpful to prisoners or to the public.

That's why we support the willingness of political leaders like Lee, Chaffetz, Paul and Holder to open a meaningful dialogue regarding sentencing and criminal justice reform. The goal of our criminal justice system ought to be to protect the citizenry, prevent crime and, where possible, rehabilitate the wrong-doer. And it ought to do so in as cost-effective and efficient manner possible. Given the massive challenges we face in our current penal system, we simply can't afford to put the critical element of sentencing on autopilot.

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