Over-incarceration in federal prisons can be fixed with four simple sentencing reforms, said federal judge John Gleeson in a public lecture he delivered on February 2 at Cornell Law School’s Myron Taylor Hall. Gleeson, the U.S. District Court judge for the Eastern District of New York, was at the Law School as a Distinguished Jurist in Residence.
For a decade, prominent U.S. judges have been invited to campus through this program to give lectures, teach in classrooms, and have intimate discussions with students and faculty. According to Professor John H. Blume, director of Clinical, Advocacy, and Skills Programs, Gleeson was selected for the Law School's Distinguished Jurist in Residence Program because he is a "visionary thinker."
Gleeson, a former prosecutor who gained renown for his successful conviction of John Gotti, is highly critical of current sentencing practices. In his lecture, he pointed to the problematic links between the guideline ranges of the United States Sentencing Commission established in 1984 and the mandatory minimum sentences of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.
Gleeson explained the historic movement away from the indeterminate sentencing practices of the 1970s, a "truly lawless situation" in which judges had unbounded discretion to impose extremely lenient or severe sentences, to the establishment of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in 1984. However, he said, these reforms ended up limiting the authority of judges too much, shifting power into the hands of the U.S. Congress and prosecutors. Ironically, the "new regime that was intended to usher in certainty and uniformity and transparency and review of sentences, all admirable goals, turned out instead to be characterized by a dramatic increase in the severity of sentences." Following the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, Gleeson noted, there was a 700 percent spike in the prison population, including many offenders who did not belong there.
The first sentencing reform Gleeson urges is for Congress to amend mandatory minimum drug laws so that they require proof of the leadership roles of the defendants. Congress had originally intended roles to be determinative, but sentences became based on quantities of drugs and then applied across the board. Thus, a mere addict, or "a low-hanging fruit" in Gleeson's words, could be given the same sentence as a "kingpin."
The second recommendation is that the Sentencing Commission should encourage judges to make sentencing decisions based on a presumption of probation for particular defendants, such as first-time offenders who have not been convicted of violent crimes or serious offenses.
The Law School's Distinguished Jurist in Residence Program enables students to learn about cutting-edge developments in judicial thought and practice and connects the Law School with members of the national judiciary.