Wednesday, November 30, 2005

On the efficacy of federal mandatory minimum sentences

The Roanoke Times reports here: "A Roanoke County man who ordered child pornography through the mail was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years in prison, the mandatory minimum for a previously convicted child molester. But U.S. District Court Judge James Turk told prosecutors that he would have levied a lighter sentence if he could, because he was unconvinced that Dennis Marco Mills, 48, had molested more children since his last conviction."

An expert for the government testified "that watching child pornography is the first rung on a ladder to molesting again." The U.S. Attorney argued "that someone would get a life sentence . . . and that the prosecution hoped it was Mills, a three-time convicted sex offender, rather than some future victim of his."

This is an interesting case, as the issues raised go the heart of what is sentencing all about. To what extent is the goal of sentencing to punish the accused for what he has done, as opposed to preventing him from doing what he might do? Also, the case is interesting from the point of view of mandatory minimum sentences, fixed by the legislature. From Judge Turk's comments, it appears that reasonable minds could disagree widely as to what sentence is appropriate in this case. Is society better served when the legislature makes a blanket decision about the minimum jail time for such cases, or should someone in the position of the judge be able to fashion an appropriate sentence based on the particular evidence in each individual case?

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