On mandatory sentencing

On a short jaunt from the hospital back to the office this evening, I heard a report on NPR about Stevan Dozier. He is currently serving a mandatory life sentence under Washington state's "three strikes" law. A recovering crack addict, he had a pattern of assaulting women and stealing from them to feed his addiction. By all accounts, he has made a serious effort to reform, and has been a model prisoner. (Request for clemency can be found here; it's a PDF, and it's long.) What's remarkable about his hearing is that, among those petitioning the board for clemency are the prosecutor for the case that put him away, the judge that sentenced him, and a conservative radio talk show host that helped to craft the original law. The board voted unanimously to recommend clemency, and it is now going to the governor. Here's hoping she releases him.

Regardless of the outcome for Mr. Dozier, I happen to think mandatory sentencing laws are a terrible idea. A brief glance in Wikipedia turns up a variety of problem cases. I tend to dislike any kind of blanket law or policy that excludes the possibility of a nuanced, contextually-appropriate response to crime. California's mandatory sentencing law hasn't done its overcrowded prisons any favors. It also seems to undermine checks and balances a bit, with the legislature binding the hands of the judiciary when the latter should have discretion. Writing for the plurality when such laws were challenged as "cruel and unusual," Sandra Day O'Connor essentially deferred to the legislature in upholding them. While I agree (and who am I to argue with the Supreme Court?) that legislatures should have power to write laws of this kind, I still think they're a bad idea.

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