As everyone who has taken a civics course knows, Federal judges enjoy lifetime tenure for their appointments to the bench. Unlike state court judges who are subject to will of the voters, once a federal judge is confirmed by the Senate, he or she is on the bench for life.
This arrangement allows federal court judges to make rulings that elected judges would not be able to make. And so it was with a New York federal judge recently. A criminal defendant in his courtroom recently caught a huge break, on the basis of some reading the judge had apparently been doing.
A felony conviction carries serious consequences with it and, according to an influential new book, these consequences have gone too far. The author of the book makes the case that since incarcerations as a result of the War on Drugs have disproportionately affected people of color, the attendant restrictions on convicted felons upon their release amounts to a form of racially-based social control.
The federal judge with a lifetime tenure read this book, and considered what these impacts– sometimes referred to as “collateral consequences”–meant for the defendant in a smuggling case. Since the 3 ½ year prison sentence the defendant was looking at for smuggling cocaine into the country seemed excessive and inappropriate to the judge, it was significantly altered instead.
The judge sentenced the defendant to a combination of probation, home confinement, and community service. The defendant’s conviction already makes her life difficult enough going forward, the judge reasoned, and giving the defendant prison time on top of the other punishments did not serve a useful purpose.
Any defendant or attorney who sees this ruling as a ray of hope takes the judge’s decision too far. It is unlikely that other courts will follow suit anytime soon, if at all. But allowing one defendant to avoid a lengthy prison sentence is notable, all the same.
The judge had a point to make, which mirrored the author’s thesis that the enormous level of restrictions on convicted felons–a number approaching 50,000 nationwide–is excessive and counterproductive to reincorporating felons into society. When incarceration is then added on top of these post-conviction restrictions, the judge decided it was simply too much. Since the post-conviction restrictions are going to follow the defendant for the rest of her life, the judge did an end run around the incarceration component of the sentencing, instead.
It remains to be seen whether the judge’s decision begins any sort of a wider discussion on the issue. State judges giving a sentence of this nature run the risk of being labeled by some as “soft on crime.” For that reason alone, we are unlikely to see any such sentence reduction in state-level criminal cases. But the federal judge imposing the lighter sentence decided to take this unusual step, to call attention to the restrictions that all felons face post-conviction.
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