Milford Superior Court Judge Eddie Rodriguez Jr. was in the hot seat the other day. The editorial board of the New Haven Register took aim at him for comments he made while sentencing a man who pled guilty to the possession of child pornography to five years in prison.
"You're being sentenced by the legislature," the judge told him. "Our hands are tied." The judge apparently had reservations about whether the sentence was just.
Why do we permit lawmakers, most of whom would probably wet themselves if they ever darkened the door of an actual courtroom, to belch out mandatory minimum sentences for offenses as though they were passing out government contracts to favored constituents? It's too easy for them to pander to angry voters, especially when it comes to folks stigmatized as sex offenders.
The editorial board of The New Haven Register opined that Rodriguez was a discredit to the bar, further fanning flames sure to come back to haunt the jurist when he stands for reappointment years from now. Great, just great. Now we're going to sentence people according to what editorial writers want?
Charles Rish was sentenced to five years because he possessed child pornography. He had some 1,500 images downloaded on his computer, including some of a six-year-old boy engaged in sex acts with another child. One image was that of a three-year-old. These are revolting images.
But Mr. Rish had apparently persuaded the judge that he had sought treatment and was a low-risk to offend again. The 53-year-old defendant had already been shamed in the community. The judge who knew the case concluded the man was not a predator.
Connecticut has tough new mandatory minimum laws for possession of child pornography. Passed in 2007, An Act Concerning Jessica's Law was passed in a wave of moral panic stirred by the rape and murder of Jessica Lunsford in Florida. Paradoxically, Jessica's father had child pornography in his computer at the time his daughter was abducted; no one charged Mr. Lunsford with being a predator. It would have been obscene to over-react in such a manner: the poor man had been through enough. Why is that if all possessors are predators in the making?
Jessica's abduction, assault and murder feeds the fear of stranger danger, the sense that all of our children are at risk each and every moment of every day. We cannot do enough to feel safe, so we enact new laws, each designed to eliminate more risk. But what, really, has Jessica's murder to do with child pornography?
Empirical evidence suggests that so-called sex offenders have among the lowest recidivism rates of all persons convicted of crimes. There is no evidence to support a "Reefer Madness" sort of theory of sex offenses. What research supports the contention that mere exposure to child pornography leads inevitable to rape and murder? There is none. There is only hysteria.
Lawmakers enacting tough new laws with mandatory minimum sentences hobble judges and the administration of justice. We shouldn't sentence stereotypes. One size does not fit all.
Defendants are "human beings, regardless of the crime they've committed, they're all human beings and they should be told something by the court in terms of why they're being punished. You're depriving a man or a woman of their liberty. ... Sentencing is a very delicate and extremely difficult task for any judge," Rodriguez said in an interview. Amen.
I repeat what I have suggest here before: Anyone wanting to serve as a lawmaker should be required to spend a week or so behind bars, locked up in a cell. Prison is a harsh sanction, and it should be meted out only after a judge has been given the ability to assess whether it is required. Too often lawmakers dole out mandatory sentences as though they are candy. I say make them eat a pound or two of the garbage they call justice. Let them see how it tastes.
Judge Rodriguez is a good man. I only wish he had simply refused to impose the mandatory minimum lawmakers imposed. Let's litigate this issue anew. Why under the separation of powers doctrine under the state constitution are we permitting people who never set foot in a courtroom or read a pre-sentencing report to set what sentences a judge must impose?
Reprinted courtesy of The Connecticut Law Tribune.