His Own Private Iowa

The other Mark W. Bennett, the one confirmed by the United States Senate, found himself in an untenable, and unacceptable, situation, as told by Eli Saslow in the Washington Post.

U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett entered and everyone stood. He sat and then they sat. “Another hard one,” he said, and the room fell silent. He was one of 670 federal district judges in the United States, appointed for life by a president and confirmed by the Senate, and he had taken an oath to “administer justice” in each case he heard. Now he read the sentencing documents at his bench and punched numbers into an oversize calculator. When he finally looked up, he raised his hands together in the air as if his wrists were handcuffed, and then he repeated the conclusion that had come to define so much about his career.

“My hands are tied on your sentence,” he said. “I’m sorry. This isn’t up to me.”

These are perverse words for a United States District Court Judge to utter. After all, what position is better described as “master of his own domain” than a federal judge? Yet, there they are, laid out for all to see. “My hands are tied.”

What makes Judge Bennett’s situation all the more astounding is that he sits in the Northern District of Iowa.

Politicians as disparate as President Obama and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) are pushing new legislation in Congress to weaken mandatory minimums, but neither has persuaded Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that is responsible for holding initial votes on sentencing laws. Even as Obama has begun granting clemency to a small number of drug offenders, calling their sentences “outdated,” Grassley continues to credit strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years, and he has denounced the new proposals in a succession of speeches to Congress. “Mandatory minimum sentences play a vital role,” he told Congress again last month.

While the accuracy of the first sentence of this paragraph is fairly dubious, the characterization of Chuck Grassley is right on target.  Grassley. That would be the one whose name is usually followed by “(R-Iowa).” The very same Iowa in which Judge Bennett sits.

There is a disconnect here that warrants scrutiny.  To those of us living in civilization, Iowa is an abstraction, the place you might see if you bothered to look out your window in the midst of a flight to somewhere you want to go.  But to those who live there, it’s smack in the meth corridor, which is completely understandable as anyone who finds themselves resident in Iowa has a built-in excuse for needing drugs.

But this isn’t about life in Iowa, but about how Judge Bennett lives with the sequelae of Grassley’s simplistic political bluster.

He could look at defendants during their sentencing hearings and give them the dignity of saying exactly what he thought.

“Congress has tied my hands,” he told one defendant now.

“We are just going to be warehousing you,” he told another.

“I have to uphold the law whether I agree with it or not,” he said a few minutes later.

The view from the ground is different than from 35,000 feet, or Washington, D.C.  These are actual living people before the court, rather than theorized, vilified, demonized caricatures that are distorted to fit in with the political narrative that justifies mandatory minimum sentencing.

You know about mandatory minimums, so vital to our nation’s safety as it puts those drug kingpins behind bars?  Who doesn’t want drug kingpins behind bars for decades, if not forever?  Certainly Chuck Grassley does, but he doesn’t trust federal judges to do the job, that big ol’ bunch of softy, criminal-loving, commie-symp pinkos.  No, they cannot possibly be trusted, so the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee must remove the temptation from their sweaty hands and tie them up.

But how it is possible that two guys, both highly official in their respective capacities, could draw such conflicting conclusions from the same Iowa?

By some measures, their strategy had worked: Homicides had fallen by 54 percent since the late 1980s, and property crimes had dropped by a third. Prosecutors and police officers had used the threat of mandatory sentences to entice low-level criminals into cooperating with the government, exchanging information about accomplices in order to earn a plea deal. But most mandatory sentences applied to drug charges, and according to police data, drug use had remained steady since the 1980s even as the number of drug offenders in federal prison increased by 2,200 percent.

Before you say it, I will. Correlation does not imply causation. It’s basic logic. Hell, it’s even got its own XKCD comic, which makes it conclusive.  The problem is that it’s an easy sell to the public, hooking mandatory minimums with the decline of crime. It makes complete sense. It can be summed up in a sound bite.  For a politician, it’s sheer gold.

But for the judge who has to look at the defendants before him, these “drug kingpins,” the sale isn’t so easily made.  Don’t believe me?  Just ask Judge Bennett.  He knows what happens in Iowa, even if Chuck Grassley’s only real interest is to get the hell out of Iowa so he can be a big macher in Washington.

38 thoughts on “His Own Private Iowa

  1. Richard G. Kopf


    Iowa stands for “idiots out running around.” Nebraska, on the other hand, is a place where men are men and farm animals are fearful.

    By the way, Mark Bennett is one of the most decent and smart human beings on the planet. He is also one tough son-of-bitch. On balance, Senator Grassley would not be disappointed if he allowed Mark to do what is right. The scumbag killer and drug dealer that Mark sentenced to death because the bastard killed children as a part of his drug business is proof of that assertion. See US v. Honken, 541 F.3d 1146 (8th Cir. 2008).

    All the best.


    1. SHG Post author

      I have no doubt that your assessment of Judge Bennett is on the mark. Shame that Chuck doesn’t think he can be trusted to do his job. And as for Nebraska, the complaints of the local farm animals speak for themselves.

      1. martyd

        Please amend that to the animals arefearless Deer hunting with motor vehicles is popular. Steer in excess of half a ton regularly graze on country roads and do not back down, They have eluded the barbed electric fences to get there. Nebraska is a state where common sense prevails, except during football season. Proud to be a transplanted Husker. Only thing missing is real NY or North Jersey pizza. Ps. Scott, you do need a skidsteer. Official motor vehicle of Nebraska.

            1. Ken Mackenzie

              I assumed Judge Kopf meant the Iowans were wunning after their wascallay wabbits.

    2. SPO

      The problem, Judge Kopf, is that mandatory minimums have arisen for a reason, namely that judges, as a whole, cannot be trusted to hand out sentences that keep the public safe. Federal judges routinely blow off restrictions on federal habeas, so why should they be trusted here?

      It’s unfortunate that Congress had to “tie” the hands of the judiciary because some people get harsher sentences than they may deserve given the inflexibility of mandatory minimums, but there’s a price in blood when people get less than they deserve. Jennifer Hudson can testify to that.

      Judges upset about mandatory minimums should look at the judiciary. That’s why we have them.

      1. SHG Post author

        That’s because federal judges are all commies. Except Judge Kopf, who’s trying to catch them. If you were half a man, you would thank him for his efforts.

        1. spo

          Looks like I struck a nerve. “Half a man”–what, because I fundamentally get that mandatory minimums are an exercise in risk allocation and that the collective lenience of the judiciary was a cause (note, that’s not saying that all judges are commies). A lot of people did some really bad things and got not a lot of time for it, and other innocent people paid the price.

          I guess that makes me “half a man.”

            1. SPO


              Ok, because lenient sentences weren’t a cause of a lot of bloodshed and heartache . . . . and in a democratic society, there tends to be responses to things like that.

            2. SPO

              Not really. Mandatory minimums were, in part, a response to indeterminate sentencing and judicial lenience. I get (and noted) that some criminals get more than they deserve.

              I got called stupid. I don’t have the inclination to try to figure out why—im only noting the weak ad hominem. By the way, you’ll note that I was talking about the judiciary as a whole, and not individual judges. That nuance may have escaped you in your rush to name-call.

            3. SHG Post author

              You got called stupid because your premise was grounded in your own absurdly baseless assumption. Mandatory minimums were never imposed because of judicial lenience, and there is no, and hasn’t been, any problem of federal judicial lenience, and it won’t become real because some clueless lunatic on the internet says so. Nor is this a discussion, any more than whether there are aliens living among us. You’re no more allowed to manufacture your own personal nutjob fantasy and then demand that others take you and your fantasy seriously than any one else.

              An ad hominem is when someone says you’re stupid, therefore your argument is stupid. This was not an ad hominem. Your argument is utterly baseless and idiotic. You follow your argument.

  2. Dross

    The privatization of our prisons and mandatory sentencing is certainly a cabal of the worst kind.

    Whenever one group depends on the government to provide a supply of “customers” for a living all of us need to watch out.

    Very funny. As someone in Iowa (CT resident) right now. I’m not getting the “My Private Iowa” reference.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not getting the “My Private Iowa” reference.

      Many people won’t. Shame, but I realized that going in.

          1. Dross

            Not to drag this beyond all that is witty. I’ll tape the interviews in the breakfast room of the EconoLodge in Ames Iowa, and preface it with, “A snarky New York lawyer is saying that people in Iowa have their own private hell, or Iowa. He was making an argument against mandatory sentencing for drug dealers and murderers, does that sound like the type of Iowa you’d want to live in?”

            There is a career in politics for me.

  3. The Real Peterman

    “But to those who live there, it’s smack in the meth corridor”

    Oh, so we’re talking about a medical problem (substance addiction) not a law enforcement problem.

    1. SHG Post author

      Chuck Grassley has asked for your home address. He says he wants to send you a thank you note for your thoughts.

  4. John Barleycorn

    Grassley is pissed he isn’t Orwell so he cited him. But really, he is certain, it’s about terrorists, safety valves, and breaking in the new gavel presented him.

    Grassley Floor Statement: Mandatory Minimum Sentencing/The Smarter Sentencing Act
    Mar 10, 2015


    It should prove to be long strange trip indeed with his hands on the reins of the judiciary committee.

    Just take a look at his electoral margins, if you want to skip a few days of training for the unraveling of the jelly belly marathon.

    P.S. You could learn a few things from Grassley about that
    newspaper you read everyday and what’s not to like about a few of the political judicial flanking flame sets he has in store for the new plays he says he will unveil on the stage of his new theater?

    P.S.S. The window is now officially open as to how many times Grassley will cite the great jelly belly eating president from his new thrown and it will be open until his 2016 run concludes. Should prove to be lots of action so bet early and often.

    1. SHG Post author

      Circular Orwellianism. How cool is that? From Grassley’s statement on the Smarter Sentencing Act:

      They are committed to the bill as a matter of ideology. The facts simply do not matter to them. They try change the subject. All they can do is resort to rhetoric. In fact, the supporters of that legislation are Orwellian in their rhetoric.

      I mean that literally. George Orwell wrote a famous essay called “Politics and the English Language.” He said: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

      Supporter were ideologically Orwellian. Grassley just wants to keep us safe from criminals.

  5. charles platt

    Might it be useful to mention Families Against Mandatory Minimums? They are at least trying to undo some of the damage to the legal system.

    1. SHG Post author

      I think very highly of FAMM, but it has nothing to do with the post about Judge Bennett. And if I don’t mention FAMM because it has nothing to do with the post, then there’s no reason why it would be appropriate for you to do so in a comment.

  6. Fubar

    From the unauthorized biography of an obscure Iowa musician who may yet become more famous than Bix Beiderbecke, Glen Miller and Charlie Haden combined:

    Charles Ernest was born down in Ioway,
    Packed his sax and proceeded to fly away.
    In DC he bangs drums
    For required minimums.
    Now from Goofus he ain’t gonna shy away!

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