The whole point of mandatory minimum sentencing laws is certainty, right? That's how these laws are supposed to scare people off of committing these crimes, right? "Do the crime, do the time!" Isn't that the rallying cry of every supporter of these draconian punishments?
Well, not so fast, because mandatory minimums can be anything but certain -- not because of loopholes for judges, as one might guess, but because of a big loophole for prosecutors: their charging power.
In short: whether you get a mandatory minimum sentence or not may depend entirely on the prosecutor you draw in your case.
FAMM President Julie Stewart explains in this Huffington Post column how this happens, using football star Plaxico Burris as an example:
Three years ago, football star Plaxico Burress was indicted after accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a city nightclub. Though Burress was not a resident of New York State, carried the gun for personal protection, did not hurt anyone other than himself, and might not have been aware of the state's strict gun law, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg pressed prosecutors to throw the book at him. ...
The Bloomberg-backed law required that every individual found guilty of illegal handgun possession serve at least 3½ years in state prison. No longer would judges be bothered to actually consider "the facts of the case" or to show mercy on "sympathetic" defendants. "Now, if you are convicted," a satisfied Bloomberg said, "you will serve a minimum of 3½ years behind bars -- no exceptions."
No exceptions -- unless your name is Ryan Jerome or Meredith Graves.
Over the past few weeks, Jerome and Graves, two out-of-state residents facing 3½-year mandatory minimums for carrying illegal guns in New York City, were given plea deals that allowed both to avoid spending a single day in jail. Jerome's case attracted the most attention because he was a former Marine who was "caught" after asking a security guard at the Empire State Building where he could store his gun while touring the popular site. Jerome was licensed to carry a gun in his home state of Indiana, but said he did now know he couldn't carry a gun in New York. In the end, he and Graves were happy to take deals that kept them out of prison.
Plaxico Burress was not so lucky. He was offered a deal by prosecutors, too, but it included substantial jail time. Rather than serve 3½ years, he could plead guilty and serve two. Because the law does not require prosecutors to prove criminal intent, Burress had no choice. He took the deal and served his time.
Mayor Bloomberg, who pressed for the "no exceptions" law and for vigorous prosecution of Burress, was inexplicably unbothered by the no-jail deals for Jerome and Graves.Looks like mandatory minimums aren't so mandatory -- and prosecutors are the people we're trusting to decide. Should we trust them more than we trust judges?