Justice Kennedy Speaks Out Against Sentencing Guidelines
Justice Kennedy Speaks Out
The New York Times
Tuesday 12 August 2003
We hope that both the members of Congress and the Bush administration were paying attention last weekend when Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, a tough-on-crime Reagan appointee, decried harsh and inflexible sentencing policies. Justice Kennedy was speaking for legal experts from across the political spectrum when he said the current rules misspent America's criminal justice resources by locking up people for irrationally long amounts of time.
The nation's inmate population reached 2.1 million, a record, last year. One major factor behind the increase has been the imposition of the mandatory minimum sentences contained in many federal laws, especially drug laws. A second reason for the rise is the effect of federal
sentencing guidelines, which were adopted in the mid-1980's to make criminal sentences in federal cases more uniform. These two measures have both pressured judges to give longer sentences than they otherwise would.
Justice Kennedy, speaking to the American Bar Association's annual convention, said he supported sentencing guidelines in principle, but that they must be "revised downward" to less draconian levels. As for the mandatory minimums, the inflexible minimum sentences written into some laws, Justice Kennedy said he could accept neither their "necessity" nor their "wisdom." He is hardly alone, even among conservatives, in raising these objections. Chief Justice William Rehnquist has complained that inflexible sentencing rules may threaten judicial independence. And Judge John Martin Jr., appointed by the first President George Bush, has announced that he is leaving the federal bench rather than remain part of "a sentencing system that is unnecessarily cruel and rigid."
Even as these objections are being raised, the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans are making the situation worse. They have enacted a new law, called the Feeney Amendment, that reduces judges' discretion to impose sentences less severe than those called for by the guidelines. And Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced plans to track individual judges' sentencing records, an intimidating move that critics are calling a judicial blacklist.
Justice Kennedy cast the deciding vote this year in upholding lengthy sentences for minor crimes under California's "three strikes" law. But as he told the association, a court can call something permissible that is not necessarily "wise or just." Mandatory minimums and overly harsh federal sentencing guidelines are not wise or just. If the Bush
administration does not believe the liberal critics, it should take the word of the growing number of conservatives who are calling for reform.
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