Retired federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin reported that mandatory minimum sentencing made her feel more like a computer than a judge.
“Mandatory minimums were almost always excessive, and they made me feel unethical, even dirty,” Scheindlin wrote in the Washington Post.
Sentencing guidelines assign crimes a place on a grid. Seriousness of the crime, number, and nature of prior convictions produce a range of months in prison. Adjustments for offense level can be made, but judges were required to mandatory sentences without exceptions.
Two decades after guidelines took effect, the Supreme Court found guidelines unconstitutional in 2005. Some discretion was returned to the judges except with respect to mandatory minimum statutes.
Scheindlin and many other federal judges routinely sentenced below guidelines, particularly for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders. In 2015 only 36.5 percent of all drug offenses nationwide resulted in guideline-compliant sentences. Scheindlin sentenced more than 200 defendants of narcotics offenses with a lighter-than-advised sentence 80 percent of the time.
After Scheindlin left the bench, she and her last law clerk, Peter Dubrowski, reviewed sentencing protocols for each of the 200 defendants and found similar story lines. The majority were indigent, 72 percent had children to support, many were under the age of 25, more than half did not graduate from high school, and most had no GED.
A majority battled alcohol or drug addiction or both, and began substance-abuse at age 14. Most were unemployed, came from single-parent homes, and most had at least one parent who was or had been incarcerated.
Scheindlin wrote, “These common characteristics suggested that the defendants needed a brand of justice to get their lives back on track, rather than deprive them of future jobs, roles supporting their families and chances to become productive in their communities. The right punishment would have given them a chance to achieve those goals.” Scheindlin nonetheless was required to impose many mandatory sentences.
Scheindlin questions if length of sentence deters people from committing crimes, “This is a popular idea in our country. Over time I came to believe it is fiction.” A report from the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit that studies criminal punishment, found evidence of mandatory sentences “fails to support” deterrence.