Friday, January 13, 2012

Good and Mad Reading for the Weekend

The title of the subject of this week's good and mad reading alone should prompt you to read it:  it's called "Have Gun? Don't Travel!"

It tells the story of Ryan Jerome, a Marine now facing a mandatory minimum of 3.5 years for carrying a gun in New York -- even though he had a valid concealed carry permit from Indiana and had no idea that it wasn't good in New York State.  The story neatly highlights the flaws with mandatory minimum sentences, as well as the injustice that might result when a person doesn't know he's breaking the law:
The first major issue Jerome’s case raises is the justice of the “mandatory minimum” sentence. Mandatory minimums are what they sound like—they are minimum sentences delineated by state legislatures or Congress to ensure that certain acts are punished with at least a given amount of time in prison, notwithstanding that a judge, knowing the relevant facts of a particular case, might feel that a lower sentence would better serve the ends of justice. And the judicial neutering is, often, the express intent behind the legislation, and certainly was in the case of the New York City gun laws. In 2005, new mandatory minimum sentences for gun violence became a part of the city’s strategy to reduce violent crime. As New York City’s Criminal Justice Coordinator John Feinblatt was quoted as stating in the New York Timesabout NYC gun laws before the change: “there was an exception in practice that you could drive a truck through…if the facts of the case suggested to the judge that there was some sympathetic reason why the defendant should not face time in jail, they could sentence them to anything they wanted, including just probation.” In other words, before the 2005 law, the judge could take into account “the facts of the case” and “sympathetic reason[s]”, and rule accordingly; put another way – prior to the enactment of the mandatory minimum sentence, the judge was free to exercise judgment. But not anymore; as Mayor Bloomberg bragged in his victory lap after the legislation passed, “Now, if you are convicted, you will serve a minimum of 3½ years behind bars – no exceptions.” (Presumably, the executives and managers of Bloomberg’s media empire were allowed – indeed, encouraged – to use judgment in running the business, accounting for its huge success over the years.) ...

More likely than not, a lack of ill intent argument will not work; it is the citizens’ responsibility to understand the laws of the polity in which he is residing, no matter how draconian or absurd the laws seem. If a person knows that he has a gun in New York City, even if he thinks that his possession accords with the law, he will be found liable.
Jerome’s fate, then, rests not with a due-process guarantee, nor with the “mercy of the court”—remember, “the court” can no longer render mercy—rather, the ultimate question will be whether the district attorney brings the charge or not. Whereas in earlier times the judge represented a potential bulwark against a harsh penalty—even if the defendant were to plead guilty—the prosecutor now has sole discretion, and will likely be the only arbiter of Jerome’s fate.
Most people in Jerome’s situation find themselves helpless, and end up pleading guilty to a crime where they intended the act but did not intend to flout the law. They might make a deal that gives them “only” two years in prison; a harsh penalty to be sure for an essentially law-abiding citizen.
Mandatory minimums are a bad idea in all cases, but they are an especially bad idea in situations where a person unwittingly breaks the law even as they're attempting to follow the rules.