Sustained Outrage

Judges and prison sentences

I promise I didn’t set out to make this Prison Week here at Sustained Outrage, but I keep finding interesting information about America’s exploding prison population. Today’s installment comes via the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which in 2007 voted to reduce sentences for crack cocaine violations.

This month, the commission published the results of a survey of federal judges it conducted between January and March of this year. So, how do the group of people tasked with deciding how much time convicted offenders spend behind bars feel about the sentences they hand out?

Well, the answers may surprise you.

When asked if the mandatory minimum sentences associated with various offenses were appropriate, a solid majority of 62 percent said that they are two high in general. When asked about minimums associated with specific crimes, most judges said they were appropriate, with three notable exceptions: For drug trafficking crack cocaine, 76 percent said the minimums are too high. For marijuana crimes, 54 percent said they were too high. And for receiving child pornography, 71 percent of judges surveyed answered that the minimum sentences are too high. This was not the case for production (only 23 percent said too high) or distribution (37 percent) of child pornography.

These results were echoed when the judges were asked about the appropriateness of the ranges suggested by the federal guidelines, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled are advisory in important opinions in Kimbrough and Gall.

Once again, a solid majority of judges — 70 percent — found that the ranges suggested for crack cocaine cases are too high. For marijuana, it wasn’t a majority, but still 41 percent answered too high. In fact, for all of the various drug-related crimes, at least 29 percent of judges surveyed replied that the guideline ranges were too high, even for heroin (32 percent) and methamphetamine (34 percent).

Strong majorities also said that the ranges for receipt (69 percent) and possession (70 percent) of child pornography are too high. But those numbers shrank dramatically when asked about distribution (30 percent) and production (16 percent) of child porn.

I’m not suggesting that federal judges condone child pornography in any way, or that they are inclined to go easy on convicts in general. For most crimes, the majority of judges find the sentences are appropriate. But the results do seem to indicate that for certain crimes, judges have reservations about the lengthy prison sentences they are expected to hand out. If we’re looking for ways to reduce the prison population, maybe we should start with the crimes for which most judges feel the sentences are unfair, particularly non-violent drug crimes.