Friday, 20 July 2012

Is life in prison a suitable sentence for robberies with a gun?

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I abhor criminals who commit crimes with guns and have no sympathy for them but I am seriously wondering if sending a young man to prison for the rest of his life because he committed some robberies while using a handgun.

Quartavious Davis, a 20-year-old Florida black man was convicted earlier this year for his role in an armed robbery spree — crimes in which he fired his handgun, but actually didn’t shoot anyone. Davis was convicted in April as an accomplice in seven armed robberies of commercial properties. The teen became violent in some of the robberies, according to his prosecutor who said that at an auto supply store, Davis fired two shots at a dog that chased him; at a beauty salon, he brandished a gun and threatened to kill a man; and at a fast-food restaurant, he exchanged gunfire with a customer who had a concealed weapon. The armed customer outside Wendy's, Dade County Public Schools maintenance worker Antonio Lamont Brooks, was unable to offer positive identification of the man with whom he exchanged gunfire. But he was uninjured and managed to squeeze off enough rounds from his 9mm handgun to leave one of Davis's accomplices with a bullet wound in his left buttock.

During his trial, Davis was described as learning disabled and bipolar. The high school dropout lived with his aunt in Goulds, a poor community in Miami-Dade County. At the time of his arrest, Davis was unemployed and a school dropout.

When it came time for his sentencing, the federal judge gave Davis the stiffest of sentences: 1,941 months, or nearly 162 years. Davis received seven years for the first of the firearm counts against him and 25 years apiece for each of the six subsequent counts. The law, as written by Congress, requires the sentences to be served consecutively. In prison slang, such sentences are sometimes referred to as "life on the installment plan" or "running wild."

My first offense and they gave me all this time,” Davis told Reuters from the Federal Detention Center in Miami. “Might just as well say I’m dead.”

I question the integrity of the US attorney who handled the case. It seems that Davis’ five other accomplices were able to cut plea deals, and were given sentences ranging from nine years to 22 years. Davis, who wasn’t described as the ringleader, told Reuters he was never offered a plea deal; and was never previously charged with a crime, subsequently he was the only one who went on trial.

Coincidentally, the U.S. Supreme Court took up the issue of harsh sentencing last week, ruling in a 5-4 decision that a state can’t mandate life imprisonment without parole for juveniles convicted of murder. Unfortunately for Davis, he was 18 and 19 when he took part in a two-month string of robberies beginning in August 2010.

Nonetheless, Shapiro sees a parallel with the recent Supreme Court ruling, telling Reuters that it’s also “cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion, to impose a life sentence on a teenage first offender convicted of lesser charges (than murder).” I think she has a point.

Wifredo Ferrer, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said in May that the sentences “reflect the commitment of my office” to combat violent crime.” He said, “We will not allow our community to be overrun by guns and violence.”

The near-162 year sentence imposed on Davis was because of a ‘stacked’ sentence, in which each individual indictment is considered a separate offense — and jail time is served consecutively, not concurrently.

Florida has one of the toughest mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the country, and various groups have called for reform.

Attorney Michael Zelman, who represented Davis during his trial, told Reuters that the time given to his client doesn’t fit his crimes. “Any law that provides for a mandatory term of imprisonment for a 19-year-old first offender that exceeds a century has got to be unconstitutional.” Davis’ current attorney, Jacqueline Shapiro, said she’s appealing to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, arguing that the extreme sentence — which does not include the possibility of parole — constitutes a “cruel and unusual punishment.”

The Supreme Court of the United States recently held that the Constitution bars taking away all discretion from judges in sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment for committing murder so also is it cruel and extreme to allow unfettered prosecutorial discretion to force a sentencing judge to impose a life sentence on a first offender teenage convicted of lesser charges.

Davis's unusually long sentence results from a controversial practice known as "stacking," in which each count of an indictment is counted as a separate crime, thus transforming a first-time defendant into a ‘habitual criminal’ subject to multiple sentences and mandatory sentencing guidelines. 

 Any law that provides for a mandatory term of imprisonment for a 19-year-old first offender that exceeds a century has got to be unconstitutional.

Until then, Davis's story will be a prominent case in point for both sides in an increasingly heated debate, pitting those who would protect society from the prospective dangers posed by serial criminals against those who see the United States - whose overcrowded prisons house fully one-quarter of all the prisoners in the world, most of them black as a bastion of injustice. It is not clear why prosecutors decided to throw the full weight of the law at Davis.
Florida has a history of "very zealous" prosecutions, according to Marc Mauer, executive director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, which advocates for reform in the criminal-justice system. For example, Florida leads in the number of juveniles sentenced to life without parole for lesser crimes than murder, sentences the Supreme Court declared to be unconstitutional in 2010. Florida and other states are now trying to determine how to resentence or grant parole to inmates affected by that ruling. According to a recent study by the Pew Center on the States, Florida was first, among the 35 states reporting, in increases in time served in its prisons from 1990 to 2009.

 In one recent, highly controversial Florida sentencing, Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Jacksonville with no previous criminal record, was sentenced to 20 years for firing a pistol twice into the air while trying to ward off an attack by her abusive husband. Denied the protection of Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, the 31-year-old mother of three was convicted of aggravated assault, a felony, and given the mandatory sentence for anyone who fires a gun in commission of a felony. However, Davis's sentencing has not generated the same degree of public interest for obvious reasons.

In a report to Congress last October, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which sets guidelines for federal courts, noted that many law enforcement officials, including New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, viewed mandatory minimum penalties as an important "investigative tool" because they provide leverage over suspects and help persuade them to cooperate with the authorities in exchange for lesser charges.

 I think that is a terrible way to conduct a negotiation for a plea. There have been many instances where persons who pleaded guilty to murder and were innocent all along did so because they were told by their prosecutors that if they didn’t plead guilty, the prosecutor would ask for the death penalty.

 The commissioner also said, "In addition to their deterrent effect, some policymakers assert that mandatory minimum penalties reduce crime by incapacitating criminals and protecting the public from their potential future offenses." I agree with that premise.

Since 2003 the Justice Department has had guidelines in place that discourage prosecutors from stacking in cases where it can lead to excessive sentences. And yet, prosecutors have broad discretion within their jurisdictions to ignore those guidelines according to criminal-law experts.

 In a statement issued the day after the sentencing, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida hailed Davis's lock-up for life as sending an unmistakable warning to anyone who is seeking to profit from violent crime. He said, "We will not allow our community to be overrun by guns and violence.”

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