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Editorial: Lawmakers must provide judges with appropriate sentencing options

This is what happens when politics intrudes on justice: A Western New York man is sentenced to 20 years in prison for growing marijuana. It was a terrible abuse of justice, as the federal judge who imposed sentence acknowledged and regretted. But politicians had tied her hands.

The good news is that Joseph Tigano III was released from prison last Wednesday, more than a decade before his sentence was up, Still, he served more than nine years behind bars for the crime and, shockingly, seven of them passed before he ever went to trial.

It’s not that Tigano was innocent. Far from it. He was convicted of operating a marijuana farm where authorities said they seized more than 1,400 plants and 100 pounds of marijuana packaged for sale. Their estimated value was between $300,000 and $500,000. This was big business.

Whatever anyone believes about growing, selling or using marijuana, a couple of facts are important. First, what Tigano did was illegal, and he knew it was. There was bound to be a price if he was caught.

Second, we’re talking about marijuana, not murder. Laws need to be rational. A sentence of 20 years, required by an intoxicated federal government, falls squarely into the category of “cruel and unusual” – the very kind of punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Yet, U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Wolford imposed the sentence because Congress had given her no alternative. “It is much greater than necessary,” she said at the time, “but I do not have a choice.”

Congress’ blood was up. Members wanted to send a message – mainly to voters – that they were going to be tough on drug dealers and it didn’t much matter if it was heroin or pot. The cause of justice – that is, ensuring that the punishment actually fit the crime – mattered not a bit.

That’s an offense, itself, written into law. Justice requires judgment; without it, justice can be achieved only by accident. Wolford knew the sentence she pronounced was wrong. It was she who conducted the trial, heard the evidence, understood the issues. She, not a distant and uninformed Congress, was in a position to exercise judgment. But she couldn’t.

And, so, Tigano was sentenced to two decades in prison. It was a second miscarriage of justice, following his seven-year incarceration without trial. For that, alone, he should be compensated.

It’s not only Washington that went over the top on mandatory sentencing. New York’s Rockefeller drug laws were notoriously vicious. Those 1973 laws required a minimum sentence of 15 years to life in prison for selling or possessing a variety of drugs, from morphine to marijuana. And enforcement disproportionately ensnared minority males, who made up more than 90 percent of those imprisoned by those laws.

Albany, at least, saw the light, easing the laws first in 2004, then again in 2009, when mandatory minimum sentences were abolished and judges were once again given permission to judge.

Washington is a different story. A 2017 report by the United States Sentencing Commission concluded that:

• Mandatory minimum penalties continue to result in long sentences.

• Those penalties continue to have a significant impact on the size and composition of the prison population.

• Although offenses carrying a mandatory minimum penalty were used less often than in previous years, Hispanics continued to represent the largest group of offenders convicted of a crime carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. And while some “relief valves” had been built into the system of mandatory minimums, African-Americans continued to benefit from them the least often, although the gap between African-American and white offenders had narrowed.

Throw it all out. Federal and state legislatures need to provide some range of appropriate sentences, then trust the judges to decide. The judges won’t get it right every time, but they are in the best position to make good judgments. They should be allowed to do that.

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