Today Eastern District Judge Weinstein issued a carefully researched opinion explaining the relatively lengthy—and in one case statutorily mandated—sentences of three adolescent defendants who each pled guilty to one count of brandishing a firearm. The opinion, available here, includes a balanced and detailed critique of the current methods to punish and rehabilitate young offenders who commit violent crimes, but for whom lengthy prison sentences are not necessarily appropriate.
From Judge Weinstein’s opinion:
Defendants—all adolescents—were gang-members, typically from impoverished and broken families.
They present the court with a number of troubling sentencing issues: (1) the need to prevent future acts of violence by gang members who, because of their home environment, and past affiliations, may be unable to escape the strictures of gang control; (2) the requirement that a sentencing court consider a defendant’s age, potential for rehabilitation, and culpability when crafting a sentence; (3) the limited ability of the justice system to provide the necessary structured environment and programming to prevent recidivism, and properly assist those defendants attempting to overcome poverty, gang allegiances, and a traumatic upbringing; and (4) limited judicial discretion when sentencing pursuant to mandatory minimum statutes.
Statutorily mandated incapacitory sentences are usually unnecessary to increase public safety, or prevent recidivism; they place a tremendous financial burden on society through excessive incarceration. See United States v. Dossie, 851 F. Supp. 2d 478, 478 (E.D.N.Y. 2012) (“[T]oo many . . . defendants . . . ‘lose their claim to a future’—to borrow a phrase from Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr.—because lengthy mandatory prison terms sweep reasonable, innovative, and promising alternatives to incarceration off the table at sentencing.”).
The comparatively lengthy sentences in this case are made necessary by mandatory minimums, but also by the finding that the available alternatives to incarceration or diversion programs are either insufficient or unavailable for violent defendants, like the present ones who have been trapped in a gang culture, and condemned to a life of poverty and probable crime.