Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Righting a wrong

From The New York Times:

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 — Federal sentencing laws that require lengthy mandated prison terms for certain offenses are expected to come under fresh scrutiny as Democrats assume control of Congress.

Among those eagerly awaiting signs of change are federal judges, including many conservatives appointed by Republican presidents. They say the automatic sentences, determined by Congress, strip judges of individual discretion and result in ineffective, excessive penalties, often for low-level offenders.

Judges have long been critical of the automatic prison terms, referred to as mandatory minimum sentences, which were most recently enacted by Congress in 1986 in part to stem the drug trade. Now influential judges across the ideological spectrum say that the combination of Democratic leadership and growing Republican support for modest change may provide the best chance in years for a review of the system.

“With a changing of the guard, there should at least should be some discussion,” said William W. Wilkins, chief judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, who was nominated by President Ronald Reagan.

There is an old saying, "it's an ill wind that blows no good". While I fully expect the new Democrat majority to engage in much mischief they will almost certainly do some worthwhile things. Things which probably wouldn't get done with Republicans in charge.

Modifying, or better yet abolishing, mandatory minimum sentences would be a great step forward in the service of justice.

The mandatory sentenced movement began with the hysteria over illegal drugs which began to grip the nation in the late '70s and early '80s. Congress stuck its finger in the wind and found that the public was worked up and realized that it would be politically advantages to be seen to be "doing something".

Of course the most intelligent thing they could have done was to legalize recreational drugs and subject them to the same kind of controls that are applied to the alcohol and tobacco industries. However that would have made too much sense for politicians so we got wave of bad legislation which, in addition to mandatory minimum sentences, turned our banks into data collection agents for the federal government.

It was the desire to hinder the operations of drug dealers which led to the rule that banks must report the withdrawal of $10,000.00 or more to the government. Then when people started making multiple withdrawals of just under $10,000.00 to skirt the regulation banks were required to report all "suspicious withdrawals".

Of course the arrival of the age of terrorism would have made similar laws necessary but the imposition of laws which can only be unjustified by the presence of an immanent external threat to stop domestic entrepreneurs from supplying a market need for a product which is either harmless, or harmful only to the voluntary users, was anti-capitalistic and morally wrong.

I know that ending the drug war is too much to expect from this, or any, congress in the short term. However, dismantling some of its more odious side-effects is very possible.