July 29, 2014

Criminal Sentencing and Judicial Activism

This is a warm and fuzzy story about judicial activism in criminal sentencing. I mean that in the best possible way.

It comes by way of the New York Times and concerns one federal judge's frustration that badly constructed mandatory minimum sentencing laws required him to impose a grossly disproportionate sentence. The law said the sentence was legal and just; basic decency and fairness said otherwise. The story has a happy ending.

In that case, United States Judge John Gleeson sentenced Francois Holloway to 57 years on three counts of carjacking and using a gun during the commission of a violent crime. Holloway had been offered a plea deal at 11 years. His lawyer apparently said he could win at trial and so he rolled the dice. All of his co-defendants took pleas (including the defendant who actually possessed the handgun), and none served more than 6 years.

The applicable penal law required that Gleeson stack the sentences, meaning that Holloway received a 5 year term on the first count, and 20 year terms on the second and third counts, all running consecutively. The additional 12 years were for tacked on for the three carjacking counts.

In essence, Holloway was hammered for refusing a reasonable plea. That he lost the benefit of the plea is understandable, but doesn't justify the imposition of what is effectively a life sentence. As Judge Gleeson has noted, the often required mandatory minimum sentences "would be laughable if only there weren’t real people on the receiving end of them."

As the Court also pointed out, the 57 years were well excess of sentences handed down to murderers and other criminal defendants convicted of far worse crimes. Yet, the sentence was not only arrived at lawfully, it was actually mandated by statute and Judge Gleeson was powerless to impose anything else. It's precisely the sort of result that causes lawyers and judges to shake their heads and say "tough luck, but there's nothing to be done." In fact, the case went up to the Supreme Court and the conviction and sentence were affirmed.

Eventually, with Holloway nearly 20 years into his sentence, Gleeson began writing Loretta Lynch, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, asking her to move to vacate the two stacked gun charges. She initially declined, but then relented.

Yesterday, Gleeson released a memorandum, stating, “Even people who are indisputably guilty of violent crimes deserve justice, and now Holloway will get it." Today, Gleeson is expected to formally resentence Holloway to time served.

It is a remarkable turn of events, driven by Gleeson's advocacy (and supported by Holloway's clean record in jail and support from other quarters). It is encouraging to see this sort of otherwise unheard of behavior from the bench, and the DOJ's willingness to acquiesce ought to be applauded, even if it was a one-night only sort of performance.

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