This weekend, you loyal Sentencing Nerds may not have been able to get your daily dose of U.S. Sentencing Commission data, publications, and U.S. Sentencing Guidelines manuals ... because the website was hacked by Anonymous, a cadre of computer "hacktivists" advocating for freedom of information and internet access.
Why target the U.S. Sentencing Commission?
According to this Los Angeles Times article,
A collective of hackers known as Anonymous commandeered a Department of Justice website Saturday to protest what it called the harsh treatment by government prosecutors of Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide this month.
The hackers replaced the site's content with a video denouncing the government and praising the 26-year-old co-founder of Reddit, who hanged himself two weeks ago as his trial date for allegedly hacking into an MIT computer network neared. Swartz, who was accused of illegally downloading academic articles, faced up to 30 years in prison.
Swartz had long promoted open access of information on the Web.
Anonymous said it deliberately hacked the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s website to call attention to “the federal sentencing guidelines which enable prosecutors to cheat citizens of their constitutionally-guaranteed right to a fair trial.”Criticism of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines has come in many forms over its 25 years of existence, but to our knowledge, this is the first criticism in the form of hacking.
While we don't approve of illegal conduct, we do think the hackers have a point: our federal sentencing laws, both under the sentencing guidelines and our mandatory minimum laws, are often too harsh. Prosecutors have unchecked power to decide who, what, and how much to charge; whether and when to offer a plea bargain; and what the deal includes, if they do. Going to trial often means risking a bone-chillingly lengthy sentence. It's no wonder that over 95 percent of defendants cave and plead, instead of asserting their constitutional rights.
Ending plea bargaining obviously isn't the answer. This article from The Economist explains why plea bargaining has become so important: in a system now groaning under the weight of tens of thousands of drug cases each year, a significant increase in trials could cripple the system.
One potentially life-saving solution is to come up with more rational sentencing guidelines and do away with mandatory minimums. Prosecutors shouldn't have all the sentencing power, in addition to all of their other powers.
And sentences shouldn't be so long that they scare people to death.