In our opinion: Roll back mandatory minimum sentences and allow judges to measure out punishment

Published: Thursday, March 27 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

The proposed reform in Congress mirrors state action to ratchet back similar sentencing structures. In 2009, New York removed a set of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. Texas has also tackled the problem. Since 2007, it has put nonviolent offenders in alternate programs. Instead of needing to build more prisons, it is closing them today.

Public opinion is now pressing for changes to this mandatory minimum sentencing system. A recent poll by the Reason Foundation showed 71 percent of Americans in favor of granting more discretion to judges.

That is the proper solution. A system of laws must provide a way for an individual’s crimes to be weighed by a judge, whose duty it is to measure out appropriate punishment. Perhaps fearful of excessive leniency by some judges, in the past generation state legislatures and the federal government embarked upon a “mandatory” path, largely stripping this discretion from the judge.

As noted in the Deseret News report, “in the mandatory minimums regime, all the discretion previously held by judges now belongs to the prosecutor. Federal prosecutors have a fearsome 98 percent win rate at trial. Combined with extreme sentences, this gives them enormous leverage. Plead guilty and implicate someone in exchange for a lighter sentence. Maintain innocence and refuse to offer up other targets, and face a stiff minimum sentence when you lose.”

This unfortunate combination puts bad incentives in front of accused criminals. And it does no credit to our system of justice. We commend the Senate Judiciary Committee for acting on SB1410, the Smarter Sentencing Act, and urge its passage by the full Senate and the House.

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