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Federal Judge Quits, Assails Unjust Sentencing Guidelines


Federal Judge Quits in Disgust Judge John S. Martin, federal district court judge in New York City, is hanging up his robe and walking away from the bench. Thirteen years working in an unjust justice system has left the former prosecutor disappointed in how little good he could do for the criminal defendants who came before him for sentencing.

In an opinion piece in the June 24, 2003 New York Times, Martin despairs over mandatory sentencing guidelines, set by people–few of them judges–handpicked by Congress to implement draconian sentencing laws. Judges are not much more than bean counters at sentencing. Used to be that a defense attorney like myself spent a great deal of time and effort in putting facts before the judge at sentencing–facts that would convince the judge to tailor a sentence that would give the defendant something to live for, something to get out for.

Not anymore. Judges mostly have it all laid out for them in the guidelines. And when they deviate from the guidelines, it is usually because the prosecutor can prove that the defendant did something during the course of the prosecution that renders him deserving of an "upward enhancement" of his sentence. Even if a defendant pleads guilty, he could get time tacked on to his sentence for insisting on his right to counsel, or by refusing to plead at the time the government wanted him to do so.

Martin is particularly bitter about drug sentencing laws. For drug offenses, according to recent data, account for about 60% of federal prisoners. It is the harsh punishment for drug use and addiction that has driven up our incarceration rate to over 2 million men and women. We incarcerate more people for more crimes than any other country in the world.

And the sentencing is in the hands of the U.S. Sentencing Commission, behold to Congress, beholden to the President. Politics as usual.

The last straw for Martin came earlier this year when tucked into the Amber Alert legislation was a requirement that federal judges who deviate from the sentencing guidelines must report themselves to John Ashcroft.

And heavens know where that is going; it seems as if the errant judges are to be seen as naughty children who must report to their authoritarian father and await their punishment. You can’t obey John and at the same time use common sense or demonstrate compassion and decency. For all John’s talk of Christianity, he is one mean man when it comes to the weaknesses and suffering of others.

Last week the Supreme Court upheld a government regulation that allows prison wardens to sharply curtail visitation of inmates and, in some cases, to allow it not at all. We don’t want them to have anything to look forward to; we don’t want them to have anyone to love them. And Judge Martin notes how the harshness of sentencing laws falls heaviest on the families of the defendants

Martin did not have a reputation as an easy judge. In many cases he imposed maximum sentences, wishing he could have given more (in one case, he said he would have favored the death penalty had it been an option). But, he says, he is not in favor of sentencing without common sense or discretion. "I am not in favor of locking up everybody for life," he says–and that puts him out of step with Congress, the White House, and Ashcroft’s Department of Injustice.

Martin says he may organize federal judges to lobby Congress for justice in sentencing. For now, though, he has had it with our "unjust criminal justice system."

ELAINE CASSEL practices law in Virginia and the District of Columbia and teaches law and psychology. She is writing a book on civil liberties post 9/11, and keeps and keeps an eye on Bush and Ashcroft’s trampling on the Bill of Rights at her Civil Liberties Watch.

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