May judges temper justice with mercy?

January 12, 1996|By Carl T. Rowan

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- How much latitude should judges have in sentencing people for serious crimes?

Do we accept the fact that no two criminals (or criminal acts) are precisely the same, and conclude that judges must be allowed )) to factor in special circumstances?

Or do we say that judges, like most people, have biases that, unless circumscribed by strict guidelines, bring intolerable double and triple standards to law enforcement?

Those questions are now before the U.S. Supreme Court as the Rodney King beating case has spun off one more spasm of divisiveness.

Back behind bars

Lawyers for the federal government and for former Los Angeles police officers Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell are arguing whether U.S. District Judge John Davies had the authority to give the two convicted beaters of Mr. King only 30 months each in prison -- much less than the 70 to 87 months prescribed by federal sentencing guidelines.

The two officers already have been freed from incarceration, but the government wants them back behind bars.

The issue is of national magnitude as we debate problems of in justice within our system of justice. We have all been outraged at some time by what we have regarded as some arrogant or stupid judge's abuse of sentencing authority.

A judge frees a man who kills his wife after finding her in bed with another man; he finds murder ''a reasonable response'' of the cuckolded husband.

Another judge slaps the wrist of a man found guilty of rape, explaining that the female victim had a history of wearing very short dresses.

A judge in Minnesota and one in Massachusetts may vary incredibly in the sentence given to a teen-ager arrested for possessing a few grams of marijuana or cocaine.

Many of us clamor to ''bind the judges down'' with strict sentencing guidelines. Others say, ''Judges are paid to judge. Let them judge.'' They say that no sentencing commission can generalize the punishment of, say, a businessman who embezzles $20 million against a man with a gun who holds up a convenience store for $200.

Different kinds of rape

They say a male student who beats up his date and forces her to have sexual intercourse might be judged differently from a ''thug'' who breaks into a woman's apartment at 3 a.m. and rapes her while holding a knife to her throat.

The unspoken charge in this case is that by giving out a puny punishment, Judge Davies expressed a bias in favor of white officers Koon and Powell, and the usual court bias in favor of the police. Many are offended that the judge said Koon and Powell already ''had suffered enough.''

There is irony in the fact that blacks and other minorities who wanted long sentences for Powell and Koon also detest the mandatory minimum sentencing rules that are partly responsible for the fact that America's jails and prisons are clogged with young minority men.

Even more irony

And there's even more irony that the public defenders and other lawyers who have tried to protect the accused generally prefer ++ to take their chances with a judge who might understand mitigating circumstances rather than face a mandatory minimum that is devoid of human feeling and understanding.

If you say you've read this column and still don't know where I stand, you're very perceptive. I am no longer sure where I stand on latitude for judges versus rigid sentencing guidelines.

I doubt that the current Supreme Court is so sure of the wisest course that it is going to emerge from this debate looking like nine Solomons.


Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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