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A Judge's Struggle With Mandatory Minimums

The New York Times today has this portrait of one federal judge's frustration and struggle with an unjust mandatory minimum sentence in a particular case. The Judge did not speak to the press--the reporter put the story together from pleadings and transcripts. It aptly describes what Congress has done to our federal sentencing system: it has removed sentencing decisions from experienced judges appointed by the president and turned them over to prosecutors.

The defendant's crime was grave: Using the screen name BigThing, he sent thousands of images of child pornography to people who answered his advertisement in an Internet chat room. And a federal judge responded with a heavy sentence, 10 years in prison. But even as he handed down the penalty, Judge Gerard E. Lynch angrily denounced his own decision.

"This is without question the worst case of my judicial career," he said. The "unjust and harmful" sentence, he added, "has the potential to do disastrous damage to someone who himself is not much more than a child."

A word about Judge Gerard Lynch. He is hardly a left-wing jurist-- he served as Chief of the Criminal Division in the Southern District of New York and, we are told, is probably as respected as anyone in the New York legal community for his intelligence and judgment. He tried to talk some sense into the prosecutors, they wouldn't listen. He ruled that the jury would be instructed that the teen would receive a mandatory ten year sentence if convicted. The prosecution appealed the ruling before trial and won. The case went to trial. The teen was convicted and Judge Lynch, as required, sentenced him to ten years. Judge Lynch also noted that had the teen's crime been having sex with a 12 year old, as opposed to swapping downloaded child porn images, he would only have faced a five year sentence.

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