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Mandatory minimum sentences face scrutiny

Some prefer to give judges more leeway in some cases

POSTED: December 30, 2012 12:30 a.m.

Mandatory minimum sentences may get a hard look from state legislators in the upcoming session, and at least some Hall County leaders think that’s a good idea.

“I’m not a legal scholar or professional in the legal world,” state Rep.-elect Lee Hawkins said. “But just looking at it from a common sense side, I question the need for mandatory minimum sentencing when we have more than capable judges who can listen to a case and make a decision based on the facts.”

The sentencing guidelines established by state law have come under increasing scrutiny as an expensive prison population continues to affect Georgia’s budget.

A criminal justice council created by Gov. Nathan Deal recommended in a 2011 report that judges be given more discretion in some cases.

The council recommended in its most recent 2012 report that the legislature consider implementing a “mandatory minimum safety valve,” which would allow judges more discretion in cases of nonviolent crimes, particularly those drug-related, or those in which criminals have cooperated with police.

For judges, the issue can be a matter of compassion. Former Superior Court Judge John Girardeau said in his experience, problems with mandatory minimums were infrequent but raised concerns.

“It doesn’t happen frequently, but there’s been enough instances where I’ve had to impose a sentence required by law that I thought under the circumstances was an unjust sentence, and that was troubling,” he said.

Hall County District Attorney Lee Darragh, though, said minimum sentencing is beneficial for prosecutors and victims.

“Mandatory minimum sentences are an invaluable tool to prosecutors in this state in ensuring justice for victims of the most serious crimes on the books,” Darragh said.

Many of the laws that created mandatory minimums began in a wave of “tough on crime” feelings in the late 1980s and early 1990s , Girardeau said.

“Back when these laws were enacted, I think there was a perception that some judges were too lenient on some crimes,” he said.

However, democracy is the remedy, Girardeau said.

“Given that our judges are elected, if judges with any consistency impose what the local community feels is being a too lenient a sentence, the judge stands for election every four years,” Girardeau said. “People can speak at the ballot box.”

Hawkins mentioned another safeguard as well.

“There is a judicial review in place already, so if that ever became an issue, the judge would have to respond to a judicial panel and explain his sentencing mechanisms,” he said. “I think with that in place, I would feel that we were doing a better justice to our citizens by not having mandatory minimums but allowing our justices to use their discretion.”

Darragh said if and when the issue is addressed, prosecutors will be on the same page.

“There may be some room for minor adjustments in certain circumstances, but I expect that the DAs of our state will be speaking with a unified voice about what adjustments may be appropriate,” he said.

Hawkins said the focus for him is not only the types of crimes but age of the perpetrators.

“I know that our governor has got his eyes wide open on this area, and is now addressing the youth portion of sentencing,” he noted. “He’s looking at legislation right now to try to help adolescent sentencing.”

Hawkins cited other judges who have expressed ambivalence about mandatory sentencing. He said one judge cited a case involving a consensual relationship between teenagers, the older of whom faced a serious prison sentence of 25 to 30 years.

“It troubles me that young adults received such harsh sentences that would put them mandatory in prison for 25 to 30 years, when the crime itself is basically a victimless crime,” he said.

Hawkins said it’s not about minimizing victims, but helping people.

“I treat patients every day in the dental office and take care of their health, so I really just try to help people,” the Gainesville dentist said. “To me, this is just common sense, a common-sense approach.”


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