Computer justice in action

December 04, 1991

In fighting crime, there are no quick solutions. Instead of deterring offenders, a federal system of sentencing guidelines introduced in 1987 has produced overcrowded prisons and inequities that should embarrass a country devoted to the ideal of justice for all. As David Simon reported in The Sunday Sun, mandatory sentencing guidelines, together with a series of mandatory sentences for some crimes and the elimination of federal parole, have caused a population explosion in the federal prison population. To cope with the increased numbers, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons plans to build 36 more facilities -- at no small cost to taxpayers.

A federal system that forces first-time offenders convicted of drug possession to serve more time than convicted murderers in state prison systems does less to deter drug use than to fuel the resentments of federal prisoners. As these facilities fill up with people who have no hope of parole -- no chance that good behavior will be rewarded -- federal prisons become powder kegs waiting for riots to erupt.

It's a judge's job to use discretion and experience in sentencing offenders. Sentences will naturally vary from judge to judge, but in the long run those variations are more tolerable than the current gaping discrepancies between state and federal sentences. If the country is unwilling to grant judges their traditional power to use discretion in sentencing, it might as well hand over the task of administering justice to a computer. That would be a fitting embodiment of what the current federal system represents -- mechanical justice untempered by the possibility of mercy, or even common sense.

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