Nicholas Kristof makes a cogent argument against mandatory minimum sentences - particularly the really big ones that don't allow for much (if any) judicial discretion - but his depiction of the case casts an unfortunate shadow over his argument. Under investigation for burglary, a man was found to have seven shotgun shells and, even though burglary charges were dropped, is looking at a fifteen year minimum sentence in federal prison.
Then a neighbor died, and his widow, Neva Mumpower, asked Young to help sell her husband’s belongings. He later found, mixed in among them, seven shotgun shells, and he put them aside so that his children wouldn’t find them.Kristof links to one of his sources,
“He was trying to help me out,” Mumpower told me. “My husband was a pack rat, and I was trying to clear things out.”
But in late September 2011, he went off track. He stole tools, tires and weightlifting equipment from vehicles and a business warehouse. He even had his son with him on one trip, which added a separate charge.Kristof may be correct that for most of his marriage, on the whole the man was a good father, but when you take your child along on a burglary you take yourself out of the running for father of the year.
A video camera recorded the burglaries.
The state charges appear to have been dismissed not because the state couldn't prove them, but because it's a waste of resources to prosecute somebody for burglary when his state court sentence won't be as long as the federal sentence he's already received. But for the federal conviction, given the strength of the described prosecution case, it's a safe bet that the man would have spent a number of years in state prison. Having taken a quick look at that state's statutes, his sentence in state court appears likely to have been significantly less than his federal sentence, but (without any argument in favor of the laws) it's also fair to note that under other states' burglary laws and habitual offender laws he would have been looking at a sentence at least as long, and potentially longer.
Kristof is correct to point out that long sentences resulting from "mandatory minimums" and habitual offender laws often do represent a very poor use of money and resources, it's difficult to believe he couldn't find a better case to illustrate his point. This is important, because criminal law is one of the fields in which the saying, "Bad facts make bad law" tends to hold particularly true. When you omit important facts to make a defendant seem more sympathetic, you don't just risk a negative reaction when people learn the full facts, you risk worsening an already hostile climate for reform efforts. As Kristof notes, mass incarceration has correlated with a reduction in crime - and while I don't want to read too much into that correlation, as I think the causative element is weak, it is fair to say that a small number of criminals are responsible for a disproportionately large portion of the crime in any given community, and some of them only stop committing crime while they are incapacitated by incarceration.
I don't like this argument, either:
Conservatives often argue that there is a link between family breakdown and cycles of poverty. They’re right: Boys are more likely to get into trouble without a dad at home, and we have a major problem with the irresponsibility of young men who conceive babies but don’t raise them.Juvenile crime is associated with factors such as domestic violence, alcoholism and drug use in the household, antisocial behavior by a parent, and marital discord. In some households, removing the father will significantly reduce the risk of the children's following in his footsteps. The case Kristof cites involves a father who was not only committing burglaries, but who took one of his children along when committing one of his crimes. The particular argument Kristof makes, that putting fathers in prison leads to their kids being more likely to engage in crime, misses the very important influence that fathers have through their actions. Sometimes it's the father's presence, limited though it may have been, that put the child on the wrong path. As for the men who aren't in prison "who conceive babies but don’t raise them", that's an editorial for another day.
The classic caricature of justice run amok is Inspector Javert in Victor Hugo’s novel “Les Misérables,” pursuing Jean Valjean for stealing bread for hungry children. In that case, Valjean knew that he was breaking the law; Edward Young had no idea.For the shotgun shells, I can accept that argument. For the burglaries that led to the discovery of the shells, not so much.
I do hope that the man's sentence is shortened, because I don't think that there's much to gain in terms of rehabilitation, just retribution or deterrence in a 15-year sentence. Might the long sentence prevent him from committing more crimes? Certainly, and the man has a record that makes the possibility of additional burglaries a valid concern, but you have to look at costs and benefits, and the law of diminishing returns. This case is not unique - we've been hearing about the results of "three strikes"-type laws since they were first enacted, and some states have rolled back a number of mandatory minimums (sometimes not enough, but it's a start) or revisited the way habitual offenders are sentenced.