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 Even as Obama has begun granting clemency to a small number of drug offenders, calling their sentences “outdated,” Grassley continues to credit strict sentencing with helping reduce violent crime by half in the past 25 years, and he has denounced the new proposals in a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.