Chair Rhoads, Vice-Chair Har and Committee Members:
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii opposes the intent of HB248, Relating to Offenses Against Vulnerable Persons, which would impose a mandatory minimum term of imprisonment for certain crimes against victims who are pregnant. This approach which would join a list of crimes which are already subject to mandatory minimum terms.
The League is opposed to the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences by the Legislature as an intrusion on the responsibility of the courts to treat each defendant fairly, based on all of the facts of the case, the criminal history of the defendant and the circumstances surrounding the case. One-size-fits-all sentencing policies are too inflexible to always lead to fair decisions in sentencing. The judge who is most familiar with each case should be the one to determine the appropriate sentence. If the defendant or the prosecution feels that the sentence is not appropriate, they have the right to appeal to a higher court. That is our system of justice.
Courts are accountable to the laws and the constitutions of our individual states and the Federal constitution. Courts best serve the public — all members of the public — by applying the laws fairly and protecting the rights of everyone. I, personally, wouldn’t want it any other way. Whether I’m innocent or guilty of a crime or civil wrong, I want every protection for a fair verdict that the law affords me, and if found guilty, a fair sentence, not some draconian mandated sentence that leaves me frustrated and resentful.
We frequently read stories of attempts by legislative bodies of different states and cities, and yes, even Congress, to strip the courts of some of their jurisdiction and their independence because the courts stand in the way of their desire to enact laws that reflect their ideologies or their own sense of what is right and wrong.
Laws can be changed and the constitutions amended, and the courts would have to apply those laws and the constitutional provisions as amended in the adjudication of cases before them.
Having said that, the Judiciary is a co-equal branch of government, sharing the responsibilities, the powers, and the obligations of keeping a check on the other two branches, the legislative and the executive. To maintain the proper balance among the three co-equal branches of government, each branch must respect the jurisdiction of the other two while exerting the appropriate checks on them.
An example of the negative results of the imposition of mandatory minimum sentencing is the harsh sentencing in drug cases that has resulted in swelling prison populations of young minority men. In an August 10, 2003 article in the San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Bob Egelko wrote, “U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in a striking departure from his court's and the Bush administration's hard line on crime, criticized the nation's imprisonment policies Saturday and called for the repeal of mandatoryminimum
sentences for federal crimes.
“Our resources are being misspent. Our punishments are too severe. Our sentences are too long,” Kennedy said in a speech at the American Bar Association convention in San Francisco. According to the article, at that time, 2.1 million people were behind bars in the United States. About 1 in 143 Americans are incarcerated compared with 1 in 1000 in many European countries. “About 10% of African American men are behind bars,” said Justice Kennedy.
In his speech, Kennedy said he agrees with the need for federal sentencing guidelines – established by federal law in 1984 to make sentences more uniform-- but believes they are too severe and should beshortened. “In contrast to the guidelines which allow judges some flexibility, mandatory minimums are virtually ironclad. I can accept neither the wisdom, the justice, nor the necessity of mandatory minimums,'Kennedy said. 'In all too many cases, they are unjust.'”
The League of Women Voters believes in judicial independence for the Judiciary and the judges and justices. Federal judges are given lifetime tenures so that they can made the decisions they think necessary even when some of those decisions may not be supported by the President of the United States, or the Congress, or even the majority of the people. Congress can change the laws or begin the process of amending the U.S. Constitution, if in its collective wisdom it feels that any decision is detrimental to the welfare of the people or of the United States.
We say yes to general sentencing guide lines, but no to mandatory minimum sentences. Let the judges be judges, not just clerks doing what the legislative branches decide for them.
Thank you for this opportunity to address HB 248.