Supreme Court Justice Kennedy’s call for investigation into mandatory minimums bears fruit

In the Chicago Tribune: ABA urges new look at sentencing:

Many get-tough approaches to crime don’t work and some, such as mandatory minimum sentences for small-time drug offenders, are unfair and should be abolished, a report from the American Bar Association said Wednesday.

Laws requiring mandatory minimum prison terms leave little room to consider differences among crimes and criminals, an ABA commission concluded in its study of problems in the criminal justice system. More people are behind bars for longer terms, but it is unclear whether the country is safer as a result, the ABA said.

The report and recommendations for changes follow criticism of the criminal justice system last year from Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Listen to the report on NPR today.
Report information is available here, and won’t be acted on by the ABA until August, but here’s part of the summary:

The resolution urges states, territories and the federal government to ensure that sentencing systems provide appropriate punishment without over-reliance on incarceration. Lengthy periods of incarceration should be reserved for offenders who pose the greatest danger to the community and who commit the most serious offenses. Alternatives to incarceration should be provided when offenders pose minimal risk to the community and appear likely to benefit from rehabilitation efforts.
The resolution sets out a series of recommended actions, including:

  • Repealing mandatory minimum sentences;
  • Allowing courts to consider the unique characteristics of offenses and offenders that may warrant an increase or decrease in a sentence;
  • Requiring sentencing courts to state the reason for increasing or reducing a sentence, and allowing appellate review of such sentences;
  • Considering diversion programs for less serious offenses, and studying the cost effectiveness of treatment programs for substance abuse and mental illness;
  • Giving greater authority and resources to an agency responsible for monitoring the sentencing system;
  • Adopting risk-based criteria as a basis for determining whether an offender should be released to community custody, parole or probation; and
  • Developing graduated sanctions for violations of probation and parole.

In addition, the resolution urges Congress to give greater latitude to the United States Sentencing Commission and the federal courts in exercising authority related to criminal sentencing, and to reinstate a more deferential standard of appellate review of sentences.

I have often talked about the need to change the rhetoric from “tough on crime” to “smart on crime,” so it was good to see this in the release:

“For more than 20 years, we have gotten tougher on crime,” said ABA President Dennis W. Archer. “Now we need to get smarter. We can no longer sit by as more and more people-particularly in minority communities-are sent away for longer and longer periods of time while we make it more and more difficult for them to return to society after they serve their time. The system is broken. We need to fix it.”


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