Time to look again at mandatory minimum sentences

In the cascade of ironies that continues to tumble out of the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, here's one that might have been easy to overlook:

The standoff seems likely to renew a debate over the idea of minimum sentences, in both federal and state cases.

In fact, during his town meetings in the mid-valley on Saturday. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he intended to take a close look at "mandatory minimums that can sometimes produce more injustice than justice."

One of the issues in the standoff in Harney County is the case of rancher Dwight Hammond Jr., and one of his sons, Steve. The two men were indicted in 2010 on federal arson charges, regarding a pair of fires that the men set that ended up involving land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

When the Hammonds were indicted, they faced sentencing under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, even though prosecutors have said they had no intention of treating the ranchers as terrorists.

But the arson charge, under that particular law, mandated five-year minimum sentences. The federal judge in the case, Michael Hogan, said during the Hammonds' sentencing in 2012 that such a sentence in this case would "shock the conscience" and would be as unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. The judge sentenced Dwight Hammond to a three-month term and Steve Hammond to one year.

The Hammonds served their time and were released from federal custody. And if the story had ended there, we wouldn't be shaking our heads over the increasingly ludicrous standoff at the refuge.

Instead, here's what happened: Amanda Marshall, then the U.S. attorney for Oregon, recommended that the government challenge Hogan's sentence. And, when the court of appeals heard the case, it agreed with the feds: The longer sentences might in fact shock the conscience, the appeals court held, but the law is the law, and the law mandates the minimum sentence.

The Hammonds returned to federal prison last week. In the meantime, the events at the refuge got underway, even though, to be clear, the Hammonds have disavowed the occupation.

These minimum sentences aren't just an issue in federal court; judges in Oregon working with Measure 11 crimes often find their hands are tied by laws mandating certain sentences for certain crimes. Part of the idea is to ensure uniformity in sentencing, but the not-so-unspoken implication is that minimum sentences serve as a check on too-lenient judges.

But part of the reason why we have judges in the first place is so that they can review all the facts in a case and make decisions accordingly. By tying their hands in making these vital decisions about sentencing — by reducing these decisions to the cold black-and-white diagram of a matrix — we essentially say that, well, every criminal case is about the same as the next case. In Oregon, the minimum sentences for Measure 11 crimes have helped to fuel the explosive growth in state prison populations, a growth that we're just now starting to get under control.

Merkley's call for a review of these rules on the federal level is welcome. State officials might want to consider the merits of a similar review.

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