I've heard many judges -- federal and state -- say it: "The hardest part of being a judge is sentencing."
That sentiment is echoed in this lengthy but worthwhile article in The New York Times, providing in-depth coverage of some of the sentencing decisions of Judge Denny Chin, now a Second Circuit federal appeals court judge. Judge Chin is best known, perhaps, for sentencing Bernie Madoff to 150 years in prison, but this article covers some less extraordinary offenses -- bank robbery, drug offenses, perjury.
Interestingly, the reporter follows up with several people who served sentences imposed by Judge Chin years ago, and asks them what they think of their punishments today. The comments of a former lawyer who was convicted of a drug offense and got 87 months in federal prison particularly struck me:
Mr. [Pat V.] Stiso, the former lawyer, spoke at his mother’s home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He recalled being shocked when Judge Chin imposed the top of the recommended range. “My knees buckled,” he said.
But today, Mr. Stiso, 50, said he feels lucky. After serving more than five years in prison, he returned to the same house and loyal and loving family, he said. Although he lost his law license and thriving legal practice, he found work selling investments in life insurance policies and also consults with other white-collar defendants about what they will face in prison, he said.
“I have no problem with the sentence I received,” Mr. Stiso said. “The entire experience saved me.” He said it was not the amount of time that changed him; it was “having to go through” the process.This is another sentiment I hear echoed from many prisoners and former prisoners who contact FAMM. One of the ways we have simplified sentencing is to say that it's the amount of time that punishes, deters, and leads to rehabilitation. But many who have been through the process of being charged, convicted, and sentenced can vouch that the length of the sentence isn't what inspires them to change and stay crime-free.
The article shows Judge Chin aiming to be thoughtful, compassionate, and human -- he admits that emotions play a role in sentencing, believes in giving people second chances, but knows that not everyone will come out better in the end. But when a mandatory minimum sentence applies, we remove the thoughtfulness, compassion, and humanity of judges from sentencing altogether. When there is a mandatory minimum, we might as well put a robot up there in a black robe.
Sentencing is the hardest part of being a judge because it should be. As voters and advocates, we must oppose every effort by legislators to control and oversimplify this complicated and thoroughly human process with mechanical mandatory sentencing laws.