Wednesday, January 2, 2013

"Plead guilty or go to prison for life"

Over at Reason, Jacob Sullum discusses the case of Chris Williams, a medical marijuana grower in Montana. Williams was convicted of violating federal law, despite the fact that his "business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law."

Sullum notes that Mr. Williams accepted a deal to drop the appeal of his conviction in exchange for a five-year prison sentence, which is considerably less time than the sentence Williams faced originally, which would have kept him in federal prison for 80 years. Sullum credits the difference between the two sentences  to "an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it."

Williams' case is a variant on the so-called "trial penalty," in which, facing obscenely harsh sentences, criminal defendants sacrifice constitutional rights to due process in exchange for leniency from prosecutors. The trial penalty is one of the nastier side effects of mandatory sentencing, and often leads to obviously unjust prison sentences. But the fact that mandatory sentences eviscerate what should be a venerated constitutional right is apparently of no concern to federal (or state) prosecutors, who too often charge anything that can be charged, rather than what justice, reason or sanity might justify.

Sullum puts the issue plain: 

The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system. If the possibility of sending someone like Chris Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?
Why, indeed?