A 52-year-old mentally ill woman got a 159-year federal prison term for a conviction as an accomplice in Montana armed robberies. The federal sentencing rules gave the courts no choice. Increasingly, judges and legal activists — conservative and liberal — point to cases like this to show that the federal sentencing system is badly out of whack, says the Los Angeles Times. They hope that Congress or the Supreme Court will give judges leeway to impose shorter — and, they say, fairer — prison terms. The high court will hear two cases this month that challenge mandatory minimum sentences.
“The worst aspect is the utter irrationality of the system,” said U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell of Utah, an appointee of President Bush. “When I have to sentence a midlevel drug dealer to more time than a murderer, something is wrong. This is not about being soft on crime. I believe in tough sentences for severe crimes.” Nationwide, 2.3 million people were locked up last year in federal, state, and local facilities, up from 501,886 in 1980. Nearly half a million people are in prison or jail for drug crimes, up from 41,100 in 1980, the liberal Sentencing Project reported last week.