Conservative Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy says that prison terms are too long and that mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes should be eliminated. The Associated Press reported Kennedy’s remarks in San Francisco to the American Bar Association annual convention.
“Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long,” Kennedy said. “I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences. In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise or unjust.”
The speech marked a rare occasion in which a member of the high court’s conservative wing spoke in favor of lighter penalties. Kennedy’s stance puts him at odds with Attorney General John Ashcroft, who wants prosecutors to identify judges who impose more lenient sentences than federal guidelines recommend. Kennedy agrees with the need for federal sentencing guidelines. The 15-year-old system gives judges a range of possible punishments for most crimes and eliminates some of the disparities in terms imposed by different judges for the same crime.
Overall, however, the guidelines are too harsh, Kennedy believes. “The federal sentencing guidelines should be revised downward,” he said. Long sentences may be constitutional, but that does not mean that they “are wise or just,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy voted with the Supreme Court majority this year to uphold California’s toughest-in-the-nation “three strikes” law mandating 25-year minimum prison terms for three-time felons. Kennedy also urged the ABA to consider working to extend pardons for state and federal prisoners serving harsh terms.