Thursday, December 20, 2007

Mandatory Minimum Sentences are No Panacea

“Driving drunk is no different than shooting a firearm into a crowded room. The bullet might hit someone, or it might not. The only thing that stops it from being a homicide is dumb luck.” —Bob Lonsberry

On January 28, 2000, a young mother named Michelle Bradley was killed and her 12-year-old daughter was injured in West Valley City at the hands of Robert J. VanDyke (see D-News article). VanDyke, was driving drunk when his vehicle crossed into the Bradley’s lane of travel and collided with their vehicle. Despite numerous instances of being charged with DUI over the previous 15 years, up to that time VanDyke had spent less than 7½ cumulative hours in jail. He was out on bail for yet another DUI when he killed Michelle Bradley.

This time VanDyke could not escape doing actual prison time. As part of his sentencing, he wrote a letter of apology to the family of Michelle Bradley, saying, “I am committed to try with all my heart not to drink again.” After only five years in jail for this killing, VanDyke was pulled over for drunk driving yet again about a year and a half into his parole. Now he finds his bail increased to $100,000. It seems that the court was not amused with his lawyer’s excuse that he could not get a ride to the hearing, although, he had 23 days to make necessary arrangements (see SL-Trib article, D-News article).

Bob Lonsberry suggests that Utah’s treatment of drunk driving does not reflect the seriousness of the offense. He argues that we can clear this up easily by requiring a mandatory sentence of one year in the county jail on the first DUI offense, with no possibility of getting out early or commuting any of the sentence to community service. He further prescribes a mandatory 10-year sentence in the state penitentiary for the second offence. Yes, this will wreak havoc on the offender’s personal life and will harshly impact the innocents connected to the offender. But if the message gets out that driving under the influence even once will seriously and permanently mess up your life, Lonsberry contends, people will be much less likely to engage in that behavior.

That sounds like a great solution. But this Standard Examiner editorial points out some problems with harsh mandatory sentencing that simply cannot be ignored. The editorial focuses on the excessively repugnant crime of child sexual abuse, but many of the editors’ points apply to DUI and other serious crimes as well.

In 1983 Utah passed a mandatory sentencing law for predatory pedophiles. But the law was repealed in 1995 because “the minimum-mandatory sentences allowed prosecutors to force defendants to plead guilty to lesser charges.” Also, our politicians apparently feel that Utah’s taxpayers are about tapped out on what they are willing to pay for corrections. Thus, minimum-mandatory sentences result in overcrowding and moving criminals to less expensive county facilities, where they mingle with and train less serious offenders.

For those of you that are thinking that we should remove prosecutors’ ability to plea bargain in certain types of cases, you may want to actually do some research into our justice system and find out what works and what doesn’t. Consider, for example, this interview with a criminal court judge in Houston. He says, “If we had an ideal situation, where every case that came in was tried before a jury who speaks for our community, we would be sending these cases for 10 years down the road to be tried. There just aren't enough courts to try these cases before a jury because the of number of cases.” It is argued that plea bargains for the most part help achieve outcomes that would be likely with a full-blown jury trial, but at a substantially lower cost to the taxpayers.

In actuality, very few cases end up going to trial. The vast majority of cases are resolved via plea bargain. The cases that do go to trial end up being the input data for modeling plea bargains. The interview referenced above addresses concerns about innocent people accepting plea bargains and mistakes that can (and do) occur in the bargaining process. The judge admits that the public is generally suspicious of plea bargains, but he also suggests that plea bargains are a decent tool for achieving a level of justice that is generally acceptable to the community.

The trouble occurs when we see an obvious problem. Mr. VanDyke should have been dealt with much more aggressively during his 15 years of DUIs prior to Jan. 28, 2000, whether this meant treatment, incarceration, or both. Had that occurred, Mrs. Bradley may be alive today. And was justice served when VanDyke spent only five years in jail for taking the life of this innocent young mother?

Cases like this cause us to demand harsher punishment. But the question then arises as to whether we are actually willing to pay for this harsher punishment. Corrections is severely under budgeted in Utah, and legislators are scrambling to figure out how to begin to remedy the problem when there are so many other demands for taxpayer dollars. Legislating harsher sentences without budgeting for the increased expense is too much like the way Congress increases discretionary spending without allotting actual revenues to cover the increased expenditure.

We want justice served, but at what price? We all want predatory pedophiles and dangerous drunk drivers put where they can’t harm innocents. But what is actually the best way to accomplish this at a cost taxpayers are willing to bear? As we can see, this issue is more complex than it appears on the surface.


Jesse Harris said...

The biggest problem with mandatory sentencing is that it allows no exceptions for people who make a one-time bad choice. Someone who drives drunk once doesn't need to have any more than a scary court experience to figure out they need to knock it off.

The reason we get so many repeat offenders is that correctional systems are focused too much on punishment rather than fixing whatever caused the person to be a scofflaw in the first place. You can throw a drunk into jail for a year, but he'll relapse upon release if he's not in a treatment program.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The vast majority of people in the correctional system are there either directly or indirectly due to substance abuse problems. Utah recently instituted a program that tries to focus on treatment rather than punishment for those that are non-violent offenders coming into the system, where the offense was incident to their substance abuse problem. We'll have to watch the program for a few years to see how well it works out.

Bradley Ross said...

While I think I understand the benefits of plea bargains, they have a really creepy side too. They have been compared to torture, and for good reason. Slate has a decent summary of the argument.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Indeed, a family member of mine is related (by marriage) to a person who stood accused of child abuse homicide. This person was pressured by the justice system to accept a plea bargain to a lesser crime; although, the case was pretty flimsy and this person maintained innocence.

As both the Slate article and the interview cited in my post recognize, 95% of all cases are settled by plea bargain. This system is fraught with errors. However, so is the jury system. Plea bargaining is not promoted as a perfect system. Rather, it is promoted as a way of achieving approximately the same level of justice that would be achieved if all cases were brought to trial, but at a significantly reduced cost to the taxpayer.

I wonder, however, how accurate this claim is. There is really no feasible way to test it.