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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2002

Bring courts back to saner sentencing

Theresa Wilson, an Alabama church secretary and mother of two, hardly fits the profile of a drug baron.

Once, in a fit of perhaps foolish desperation, she tried to sell a prescription morphine painkiller to an undercover police officer. Under Alabama's draconian narcotics laws, she was sentenced to life in prison.

Recently, 34-year-old Wilson was freed by a judge who made the humane and sensible move of circumventing mandatory sentencing laws to let the time fit the crime.

Hopefully, Wilson's case signals the end of an era in minimum mandatory sentences. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear two challenges against California's "three strikes, you're out" law, which mandates life sentences for repeat offenders.

And politicians and other policy-makers are re-evaluating the benefits of mandatory sentencing laws in the face of burgeoning prison populations.

Somewhere along the way, we as a society stopped trusting judges to impose prison terms that reflect the severity of the crime. States, including Hawai'i, have passed a slew of mandatory sentencing laws that disregard the mitigating circumstances of a crime.

The result is prisons filled with petty drug offenders who don't belong behind bars and horror stories about justice denied.

It all started with the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984. The law took criminal sentencing out of federal judges' hands, and led to mandatory-minimum sentence laws.

A decade later, amid hysteria over random violence and the kidnapping and murder of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, California voters approved the three-strikes law.

That law has meant life sentences for a man who tried to walk out of a store with an umbrella and a liquor bottle and another who was convicted of attempting to steal three videotapes. Clearly the pendulum has veered wildly into the nonsensical. We're glad it's swinging back to the sane.