SENTINEL 6-14-2012
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When a Judge Can't Budge

African Americans & drugs

The Firpo Files

(Sentinel, June 14, 2012)

In the government's rigged War on Drugs thousands of innocent Citizens of Color are routinely incarcerated. Surprisingly, in this onslaught, even certain conservative judges are bothered by mandatory sentences that overwhelmingly impact African Americans negatively. Take the case of Weldon Angelos.

As a 24-year-old record producer he should not have thrice sold marijuana, especially while in possession of a weapon he neither used nor threatened to use. But, under these circumstances, federal sentencing guidelines dictate that the judge sentence Angelos to a fifty-five-year mandatory minimum sentence. He'll be eighty when he gets out.

The judge himself was so bothered that he couldn't lighten Angelos' sentence that, according to Marc Mauer in the book Race to Incarcerate (2006) he decried from the bench, "The Court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational."

"Some federal judges," writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow (2010), have quit in protest of federal drug laws and sentencing guidelines. "Face-to-face with those whose lives hang in the balance, they are far closer to the human tragedy occasioned by the drug war than the legislators who write the laws from afar."

Judge Lawrence Irving: Case in point is the Reagan-appointed conservative Judge Lawrence Irving. "If I remain on the bench," confessed Irving, "I have no choice but to follow the law. I just can't, in good conscience, continue to do this." (Special to the New York Times, "Criticizing Sentencing Rules, US Judge Resigns," New York Times, September 30, 1990)

Judge Jack Weinstein: The New York Times article, "Two Federal Judges, in Protest, Refuse to Accept Drug Cases" (April 17, 1993), singles out Judge Jack Weinstein as one of two judges who flat out refused to take drug cases. Weinstein is quoted as describing "a sense of depression about much of the cruelty I have been a party to in connection with the ‘war on drugs.'"

Judge Stanley Marshall: In the article, "Revolt to Sentencing is Gaining Momentum" in the National Law Journal (May 17, 1993), former prosecutor Chris Carmondy quotes Judge Stanley Marshall as saying: "I've always been considered a fairly harsh sentencer, but it's killing me that I'm sending so many low-level offenders away for all this time."

Alexander writes that "He made the statement after imposing a five-year sentence on a mother in Washington, D.C., who was convicted of ‘possession' of crack found by police in a locked box that her son had hidden in her attic."

Judge William Schwarzer: In an American Lawyer article entitled "Ten Years for Two Ounces" (March 1990), Stuart Taylor Jr., details the reaction of a crusty, hardline conservative California judge to the obligatory sentence he meted out: 

"U.S. District Judge William W. Schwarzer, a Republican appointee, is not known as a light sentencer. Thus it was that everyone in his San Francisco courtroom watched in stunned silence as Schwarzer, known for his stoic demeanor, choked with tears as he anguished over sentencing Richard Anderson, a first offender Oakland longshoreman, to ten years in prison without parole for what appeared to be a minor mistake in judgment in having given a ride to a drug dealer for a meeting with an undercover agent."

Justice Anthony Kennedy: Even Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy voiced serious misgivings about mandatory minimum sentences. In the book, Downsizing Prisons: How to Reduce Crime and End Mass Incarceration (2005), Michael Jacobson quotes Justice Kennedy as telling attorneys gathered at the American Bar Association's 2003 annual conference: "Our [prison] resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too loaded. I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In all too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unjust."  

Judge Sebastião Alves Junqueira: Brazil doesn't have mandatory sentencing. In 1966, long before becoming a Brazilian judge, Junqueira graduated as a sergeant from military school. He later earned a law degree. Then, in 1976, he became a police chief, and was even a jail administrator.

"When I became one of Jehovah's Witnesses," writes Judge Junqueira, "I gained a deeper understanding of right and wrong. As a judge, I try to put Jehovah's way of dealing with different issues into practice in court--taking into consideration all the circumstances, being reasonable, and being compassionate when there are mitigating circumstances. I have dealt with many cases of violence, crime, and child abuse, as well as other serious criminal offenses. Even so, I haven't become desensitized."

More to come. Stay tuned.