Newsbrief: Supreme Court Justice Says Prison Terms "Too Long," Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums 8/28/03

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The festering dispute between the federal judiciary and prison-happy Justice Department officials and Congressional Republicans was given public voice at the American Bar Association's annual convention on August 9, when a moderate conservative Supreme Court justice appointed by Ronald Reagan strongly rebuked the nation's sentencing policies -- which have led to the United States holding the position as the world's leading jailer.

"Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long," said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, according to the Associated Press. "I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences," Kennedy said. "In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise or unjust." While Kennedy told the assembled attorneys he supported federal sentencing guidelines, which also limit judges' discretion in sentencing, he also said they should be adjusted downward because they have resulted in longer sentences than before they were implemented in 1988. "We should revisit this compromise," he said. "The federal sentencing guidelines should be revised downward."

Kennedy did not directly address Attorney General John Ashcroft's July 28 memo directing US attorneys to appeal almost all downward departures from federally mandated sentences or report judges who issue lighter sentences ( That memo, the latest thrust from the prison faction in the increasingly nasty conflict between judges and law 'n order politicos, led to an upswing in grumbling from a federal judiciary that sees its ability to tailor sentences to individual circumstances unnecessarily limited by harsh mandatory minimum sentences.

Kennedy asked the ABA to lobby Congress to repeal mandatory minimums, even if they are constitutional. "Courts may conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, but that does not mean long sentences are wise or just," Kennedy said. He also urged the group to lobby for increased use of the pardon power. "The pardon process, of late, seems to have been drained of its moral force. Pardons are infrequent," Kennedy said. "A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy."

While Kennedy did not directly mention drugs -- drug offenders make up more than half of all federal prisoners -- he did mention the fact that about 40% of the prison population is black and that the American gulag is of "remarkable scale" with more than 2.1 million people behind bars. "It is no defense if our current system is more the product of neglect than of purpose," Kennedy said. "Out of sight, out of mind is an unacceptable excuse for a prison system that incarcerates over two million human beings in the United States."

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Issue #300, 8/28/03 Editorial: One Less Prisoner in America | Cheryl Miller Memorial Project Coming to Washington, DC This September 22-23 | David Borden's Open Letter to DC's Chief Judge on Refusing to Appear for Jury Service | August is Drug Reform Lobbying Month at Home! | DRCNet/ Buttons and Stickers for Free or Cheap | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | Newsbrief: Kentucky's Galbraith Enters Attorney General Contest, Downplays Marijuana | Newsbrief: Supreme Court Justice Says Prison Terms "Too Long," Calls for End to Mandatory Minimums | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Drug War, Chinese Style | Newsbrief: Colorado Appeals Court Upholds Fake Drug Checkpoints | Newsbrief: Fake Drug Checkpoints Cause Uproar in Indiana | Newsbrief: Feds Seize Hemp Promotional Vehicle at US-Canada Border | The Reformer's Calendar

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