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Sentencing Laws Should Make Sense


A few years back I told the story here about a Madison man who was sent off to five years in federal prison because he grew 101 marijuana plants in the basement of his home.

He raised the pot, not to sell to anyone, but to smoke himself to ease the back pain that had plagued him since a bad auto accident.

The feds, however, caught him with the marijuana and, because there were 101 plants, Judge John Shabaz had no recourse but to send him to a full five years in the federal pen. Had there been 99 plants, the judge would have been allowed to use his own discretion. And since this was a first-time offense and there was no evidence that there was any intention to sell the pot, he undoubtedly would have received a much lighter sentence.

But those law-and-order members of Congress in the late '80s were determined to wage a "war on drugs." And they weren't about to allow any "weak-kneed" judge to show drug users any sympathy. So no matter the individual circumstances, they all wound up crowding the prison system at a great cost to taxpayers.

Now that the Democrats have retaken control of Congress, these asinine mandatory sentences may finally become a thing of the past.

And it isn't just federal judges who were appointed by previous Democratic administrations who are asking for a change, but many of the judges named to the bench by Republicans, including George W. Bush himself.

"These sentences can serve a purpose in certain types of cases involving certain types of offenders," Judge Reggie B. Walton of the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., a Bush appointee, told the New York Times, "but when you apply them across the board you end up doing a disservice not just to individuals but to society at large."

New House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, Democrat from Michigan, has announced he will hold hearings on the mandatory sentencing laws by the end of the month.

Interestingly, several federal judges have made public statements urging a change, something they feared to do when the Judiciary Committee was headed by that Wisconsin embarrassment, Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls. It was not above Sensenbrenner to put a federal judge through the ordeal of a congressional review of his or her sentencing patterns if that judge had the audacity to criticize decisions made by Congress.

Thankfully, Sensenbrenner is now relegated to the minority. Perhaps some common sense will now return to the nation's sentencing laws.

Source: Capital Times, The (WI)
Copyright: 2007 The Capital Times
Contact: tctvoice@madison.com
Website: http://www.madison.com/tct/
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