Tuesday, July 29, 2014

One Here, None There

The story in today's Times begins this way.
Francois Holloway has spent nearly two decades of a 57-year sentence in a federal prison, for serious crimes that no one disputes he committed. There were armed carjackings, and his participation in an illegal chop shop, where stolen cars would be dismantled and sold for parts.
It's a powerful story of a federal judge in Brooklyn (John Gleeson) committed to doing something about an absurdly harsh sentence he was forced by law to impose, the lawyer he appointed (Harlan J. Protass) to represent Holloway finding a couple of similar situations in Montana, and a US Attorney (Loretta E. Lynch) who bowed (one senses grudgingly) to decency.

What happened is that Holloway was charged with three carjackings over the space of several hours.  In each case, his co-defendant had a gun.  Because he went to trial and got convicted rather than cut a deal and plead guilty, those guns in the co-defendant's hands ended up costing him decades.  As mandated by Congress.  

Mr. Holloway’s 57-year term was more than twice the average sentence in the district for murder in 1996, the year he was sentenced.
Anyway, Judge Gleason did some strong arming, the prosecutor agreed to vacating a couple of the carjackings, and Holloway will be sentenced today to time served and released to the custody of the New York State prisons where he'll be eligible for parole in about 9 months.

It's a good thing.  And I don't really want to sound grudging about a case where everyone did the right thing.  But you know

Here's the thing.  There are hundreds, probably thousands of men and women (mostly men) in state and federal prisons serving sentences that are, by any rational standard (as distinct from, say, the Otis/Scheidegger standard) absurdly long.  There are thousands of men and women who've had their lives ruined, who've lost their families (and functionally their lives), whose families have been torn apart because we've chosen to make everything a crime and to lock up as many people as possible for as long as we can possibly lock them up.  There are thousands of men and women we release on the street, denied an opportunity to get an education or housing or employment, but ordered to become productive members of society or go back into the slammer.

Judge Gleason is a fine judge who's done good things before and surely will again, but really there isn't much he can do except in individual cases.  Harlan Protass may be a great lawyer, but really there isn't much he can do except in individual cases. And then there's Loretta Lynch, about whom I know absolutely nothing but that in this one case she was pushed and shoved and finally did a truly decent thing she didn't have to do.

I have no reason to doubt Lynch's basic decency and sense of fairness.  But I have to notice that just as our clients are all better than the worst things they've done, so Ms. Lynch is probably nowhere near as noble as the best things she's done.  The judge, as I say, can really only act in individual cases.  Defense counsel can only act in individual cases.  The prosecutor, though, she gets to set (yes, within bounds and with some constraints, but nevertheless) policy.

So Good for Francois Holloway.  And good for it working out.  But he's just one guy.  Of the thousands. And thousands.  

Loretta Lynch could change office policy.  Congress could act.

One can hope.  

Hope, of course, is the thing with feathers.  As, it appears, were the dinosaurs.

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