Wednesday, July 25, 2007


There is no question that there is a high degree of arbitrariness in sentences, which led Pennsylvania, other states, and the federal government to all push sentencing guidelines.But sentences still depend on the persuasiveness of legal counsel, the worldviews of judges, and the interactions between the defense and the prosecution. One judge once told me that he tends to reward defendants who make his life easier, and another judge once told me that they are so many legal precdents on all sides of just about all legal issues, that judges can often pretty much rule the way they want to.My favorite story about judicial sentencing concerns my good friend Eugene Maier, now a senior judge. Maier had a reputation as one of the toughest sentencing judges in City Hall.One day, a close friend of Maier's with an extensive criminal practice was scheduled to appear before Maier. Maier was not happy about this random assignment. He noted that the lawyer and he had been law school classmates, and had socialized together many times during law school and since. He considered the lawyer to be once of his closest personal friends. He thought, indeed, that they were so close that it might be reasonable to challenge whether Maier could be an objective judge of the lawyer's arguments. Maier concluded by saying he was therefore disqualifying himself from hearing the case, and that he would take the necessary steps to have the case assigned elsewhere.World traveled fast about Maier's decision. Before the friend was able to leave the building, a number of prospective clients had introduced themselves to Maier's friend and sought to have him represent them. If one of the toughest judges in City Hall--the toughest, by some measurements--would not hear any case in which the defendant was represented by one of Maier's closest friends, that enormously increased the lawyer's market value to defendants seeking to avoid really tough sentences.

December 2, 2008


I favor the abolition of mandatory minimum sentences and legislation to achieve that. The state already spends more money on prisons than it does on either the Philadelphia School District or Pennsylvania State University, and every time a mandatory minimum sentence is adopted those costs are raised higher for the future.More and more of our prison dollars are being spent on health care for elderly and very sick prisoners; prison health care may be better health care than the same individuals might receive out of prison.(A New Jersey doctor who has been a friend of mine since elementary school, and who has provided medical care in New Jersey prisons, told me last year his belief that some people with AIDS were deliberately committing crimes in order to take advantage of prison health care.)One of the things I hope Speaker O'Brien's Commission on Crime Prevention will do is to look at the effect of mandatory minimum sentences on deterring crime. The claim that they do has been their chief legislative selling point, but that claim has not been generally subject to vigorous empirical examination.

July 22, 2007


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