The single most important criminal justice reform within reach in each statehouse is the elimination of mandatory minimum prison sentences and consequences. The ends of justice require it. Sound economics counsel it. Only anger and fear stand in the way of meaningful reform.
Law students are taught, and judges still pretend, that a judgment of guilty and a criminal sentence should accomplish four purposes: deterrence of the individual who committed the crime, deterrence of others who might commit a similar crime, rehabilitation of the guilty and retribution. We teach that to practitioners of the law, but not to lawmakers. They are presumed to know these things.
I say that lawmakers need re-education about the purposes of the criminal justice system. This is necessary because lawmakers increasingly resort to a one-size-fits-all mindset when it comes to mandating penalties for crimes. The fact of the matter is that offenders, and that includes sex offenders, are rarely identical. Justice requires a measured and calibrated response to the nature of the offense and the character of the offender.
I have sat in judge's chambers and listened to private agonizing by both the judge and the prosecution. A young man who confessed to a Romeo and Juliet crime, falling in love with a young girl below the age of consent, but consenting nonetheless, must be sent to prison, convicted of a felony, be required to register as a sex offender, undergo treatment for sexual misconduct as a consequences of his inevitable probation. These four horsemen appear at the doorstep to he the judge's chambers, but each horseman smirks: they know that some of the men and a few of the women in the room are guilty of doing just what the young man did, they just weren't caught. So the judge does his job, accepts the defendant's guilty plea, and sends him to prison. It is as inevitable as an assembly line.
A criminal offense, and the consequences of committing the offense, including prison and registration as a sex offender, are mandated by lawmakers. Yet these lawmakers are never required to meet the men and women sentenced, or to make any assessment of what risk, if any, they pose to society. In a legislative chamber, lawmakers strike out in the name of decency and innocence. Protecting children is their battle cry. Who would fail to rally to such a standard? The trouble is that these rallying cries often deafen those who want to listen to what justice requires.
The crime of statutory rape has a history. Prior to the industrial revolution, the age of consent was low in many states, reaching to 10 years of age in some states. It was assumed that parents and local communities could police the conduct of young people learning to cope with newly emergent hormones. When young women began to flock to cities from their farms in search of factory work, young women were unsupervised in urban centers. The Women's Christian Temperance Union sponsored legislation increasing the age of consent to 16 and 18 years old. This reform swept the states in the 1880s, and its product remains the law today.
What prompted the law was not a sense that love was a crime, but a fear familiar to current efforts to expand the sex offender registry at every chance: stranger danger. If young women were far from home, any predator could take advantage of them. The law was never intended to crush those young men and women who fell in love before lawmakers thought they should. Romeo ought not to be required to register as a sex offender.
I am not writing in favor of decriminalizing sex offenses. These crimes cut to the very core of a person's sense of self-worth and dignity. When the crimes occur, they should be punished. But I am proposing that mandatory minimum sentences be eliminated so that judges can decide what the appropriate punishment and consequences should be. Social outrage can be expressed by legislative pronouncements of sentences and consequences in terms of rebuttable presumptions.
A rebuttable presumption is a target. Lawmakers can say that for a given offense, a mandatory term of imprisonment of, let's say, one year is presumed reasonable. If a party facing such punishment thinks the prison term should be less than that, he and his lawyer would be free to rebut the presumption by giving the judge reasons to impose a lesser sentence. Thus, in the case of a Romeo and Juliet law, society could maintain its judgment that sex below a certain age is unwise and prohibited, but realize that to every rule there are exceptions. And what justification is there to require registration as a sex offender for consensual conduct?
I believe reform advocates in each state and on the federal level should target statutes requiring mandatory prison time and registration for extinction. Each time you read the word "shall" in a statute, a terms of art eliminating judicial choice, rewrite the law to state "should, unless given reasons to do otherwise." Judges will often do the right thing if lawmakers let them. We need to persuade legislators to give judges the freedom to make judgments.