George Orwell said, "To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle." I have been reminded of that sentiment recently after watching politicians and pundits criticize the imposition of excessive mandatory minimum sentences and then blame everyone and everything except the actual sentencing law that required the excessive punishments.
The latest example of this is playing out in New York City. According to a news report, Ryan Jerome, a 28-year-old former Marine Corps gunner, went to the Big Apple last September with the hope of selling $15,000 worth of jewelry. Mr. Jerome carried a gun to protect his valuable stash. After reading some inaccurate information on the Internet, he mistakenly believed that he could carry the firearm in New York because he was licensed to carry one in his home state of Indiana.
The trip to New York was Mr. Jerome's first and he decided to go sightseeing. He tried leaving his gun in the hotel safe but it was full, so he brought it with him. When he arrived at the Empire State Building, Mr. Jerome approached a security guard to ask where he should check his gun. The security officer called the police. Mr. Jerome was arrested and forced to spend the next two days in jail.
Because of New York's mandatory minimum sentencing law for guns, Mr. Jerome faces a minimum prison sentence of 3 1/2 years. He could receive as much as 15 years. He also happens to be the latest of many tourists who have been arrested for unknowingly violating New York's tough gun law. Football fans will recognize this law as the same one that sent New York Jets wide receiver Plaxico Burress to prison.
The case has generated some buzz in the blogosphere. Gun rights supporters want the Manhattan district attorney to decline prosecution. Other commentators note that Mr. Jerome is a former Marine and sought to comply with the law by researching it before his trip. As Mr. Jerome told the New York Post, "If I had known, I never would have brought that gun with me, no matter how much gold I had."
Perhaps the prosecutor should exercise discretion in this case and not bring charges, but the reason the stakes are so high is because the law carries a mandatory minimum sentence that certainly does not fit people like Ryan Jerome. Without the mandatory minimum, a dutiful prosecutor's insistence on charging every technical violation of the law could be tempered by a judge's willingness to consider the unique facts and circumstances of each case and defendant, and to fashion an appropriate sentence. But a mandatory minimum sentence eliminates any judicial discretion.
In many ways, the Jerome case reminds me of the prosecution of U.S. border agents Ignacio Ramos and Jose Compean. They were sentenced in 2006 to more than a decade in prison after a jury found them guilty of shooting an unarmed illegal immigrant and covering it up. The agents' long sentences were required by a federal mandatory minimum sentencing law. Nevertheless, members of Congress hauled the prosecutor who tried the case to Washington for a grilling. They couldn't believe he had the audacity to use the law they had written. Seeing that the judge had no discretion, many members of Congress then asked President George W. Bush to intervene, which he ultimately did by commuting the agents' sentences.
The problem with these cases (and thousands of others just like them) is that one-size-fits-all-sentencing laws do not deliver the kind of individualized justice that Americans have a right to expect. Not all crimes and offenders are alike. That doesn't mean New York needs two laws for every offense - i.e., one gun law to prosecute armed robbers and another to prosecute inadvertent offenders such as Ryan Jerome. But it does mean politicians should refrain from inserting mandatory minimum penalties into their laws since they cannot foresee every situation to which they might be applied.
Ramos and Compean were relatively lucky. Perhaps Mr. Jerome will get lucky, too, and the Manhattan D.A. will find some way to resolve the case without Mr. Jerome going to jail. But it's not reasonable to expect that presidents and governors are going to be able (or willing) to save every unforeseen defendant from being saddled with an ill-fitting mandatory sentence. The only way to make sure that the time fits the crime is to get rid of mandatory minimum sentences and let judges consider all the relevant factors in crafting individualized sentences.
Julie Stewart is president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
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