Chair Hee, Vice Chair Shimabukuro, members of JDL Committee,
The League of Women Voters of Hawaii is opposed to mandatory minimum sentences 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. We do support the right of the legislature to enact sentencing guidelines to encourage uniformity in the sentences on similar crimes.
The League shares the legislators' and society's indignation over lawbreakers' preying on the aged, the handicapped and the very young who are least able to defend themselves, and the general sentencing guidelines should reflect society's concern. And certainly, we would expect that judges would take the victims' vulnerability into consideration in imposing any sentence on defendants.
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 begins with “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 mandatory-minimum 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 be shortened.
“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 individual judges and justices. Federal judges are given lifetime tenures so that they can make 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 their collective wisdom, it feels that any decision is detrimental to the welfare of the people or of the United States.
We frequently read stories of the attempts by the 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. In order for our governments at all levels to work properly, each of the co-equal branches of government must respect the jurisdictions of the other two, while exerting the proper checks on them to maintain the proper balance among the three branches.
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 SB 2450, SD1.