Monday, May 21, 2012

The Growing Police State: Minimum Sentencing Edition

In Jacksonville Florida, a woman will be serving 20 years in prison for not shooting her (probably) abusive husband. 

Back in 2010, Marissa Alexander, who had a restraining order against her husband, had returned to the house they had shared to retrieve some of her things.  She believed he was gone at the time.  Reporting is unclear whether he was gone and arrived while she was still there, or if he wasn't gone in the first place.  In either event, an argument started.  Ms. Alexander claims she felt threatened.  Then, proving she is unlikely ever to win the 'Thinker of the Year' award, she went to her vehicle, retrieved her legally possessed firearm, and returned into the house.  In the course of the continuing argument, she believed she was being threatened and fired a "warning shot."

This was stupid.  If you feel threatened by someone, you don't leave and come back- you just leave.  While I don't know Florida Law, I can say, without fear of contradiction, that Common Sense says that.  Apparently, in Florida, it's a crime.

She was arrested and charged, and her case was handled by the now infamous Angela Corey.  Rather than accepting a plea bargain, Ms. Alexander took her defense to trial.  There she was convicted. 

Then came the sentence.  Now, what Ms. Alexander did was stupid.  Once she realized her husband was home, I'm relatively certain her restraining order required her (as the 'transgressor') to leave.  Certainly once an altercation began, and she left the scene of said altercation (leaving the house to go to her vehicle), she had given up any claim of "self defense" by re-engaging in the argument.  However, this was her first arrest, she did feel threatened, and no one was harmed (specifically: she was shooting not to hit anyone).  In a rational world this would get a sentence of "Go, and be stupid no more" to maybe a year or two in prison. 

We don't live in a rational world.  We live in a world where Florida has the so-called "10-20-Life" rule, wherein using a gun in commission of a felony automatically triggers minimum sentences.  Just having a gun during the crime gets you a minimum of 10 years.  If you fire the weapon, it's now 20 years.  Fire the weapon and hit someone, and you're gone for 25 to Life.

Now, I actually understand the problem the legislature was trying to address.  There were a rash of pathetically lenient sentences handed down by judges across the nation for a while, and the Florida legislature did not want some thug to get off with a wrist slap.  Enter the Law of Unintended Consequences, and we get stories like Ms. Alexander's.

Minimum Sentencing laws are a terrible way to address that particular grievance.  Justice is not about revenge, and it is not about "deterrence."  Justice is, in effect, a society's immune system.  And Minimum Sentencing Laws are like allergies- they cause the society's immune system to overreact to relatively benign stimuli.  Minimum Sentencing laws remove a judge's ability to address a case rationally, and punish a stupid choice differently than a malicious one.

The correct way to address the problem, which I readily admit exists, is to enforce judicial standards.  That is, when a judge is way out of line- especially if it happens repeatedly- remove them.  Every state has means by which the Legislature can remove a judge- from the State Supreme Court on down.  Many states elect their judges, which means the next time the judge is up for re-election he can, instead, be de-elected.

As with all laws (yes: all of them), minimum sentencing laws only really negatively affect the law-abiding.  Hardened Criminals know they'll get a lighter sentence by accepting a plea bargain.  Indeed, sometimes they'll get that wrist slap the legislature was hoping to avoid.  So minimum sentencing laws only have a minimal effect on their behavior.  On the other hand, many people like Ms. Alexander believe the law is there to protect them.  She took her case to trial believing in the all-beneficent State which would take care of her.  In the same way, the first instinct of most law abiding people is to answer questions for the Police- legal experts, including former cops, will tell you never to answer questions- especially about a crime- without a lawyer present.

All-in-all, this is one of the most striking examples of the ever-expanding police state that I've seen recently.  Indeed, it is so striking not because something reasonable people would expect to be legal isn't, but because it shows exactly the price to be paid when a Government thinks it can solve every problem by writing another law.


  1. If she got the 20 years for this act of extreme stupidty it may be a bit much. But she did disengage, get her gun, AND THEN GO BACK. I don't know about Florida's CC laws, but here in Wisconsin, that is a big no-no. Whatever protections she had under the law would have been waived by going back in.

    So, her stupidity leads to 20 years. I will not cry for her.

    1. I agree. This isn't so much a defense of her: obviously she lost any right to claim self-defense when she left the scene and went back.

      But, insofar as the Justice System should mostly be concerned with ensuring the safety of citizens; my immune system analogy; what this woman did is not something that requires 20 years in prison to make sure she's not a threat to society.

  2. Lurking Florida MoronetteMay 21, 2012 at 9:36 PM

    Usually like your thoughts, but gotta disagree with you on this. Going back in the house with the firearm wiped out pretty much any defense--"stand your ground", prevention of a forcible felony, fear for her own safety, etc. It's clear from the 911 calls her husband was in fear for his life-- and if the call from the second incident (where she attacked him AT HIS SAFE HOUSE) were allowed at trial, no wonder it only took the jury 12 minutes to convict.

    10-20-Life is supposed to be harsh. Not merely as a pushback against lenient sentencing, but as a deterrent to the abusive use of a firearm. And it's worked. And JMO, it's one of the reasons a state so full of Yankee transplants can have such Southern gun laws.

    1. I don't disagree with your first paragraph at all. See my other reply above. I'm not saying she didn't commit a crime, or that she doesn't deserve some jail time.

      I am saying that 20 years for a woman who had never committed a major crime, and who had never committed a violent crime at all (from the reporting I found, at least, if you've got other information, I'd love to see those articles/links) prior to this is a little beyond the pale.

      The fact is, 10-20-Life doesn't act as a deterrent: no law does. The only people who obey laws are those who are law abiding anyway. It's called 'moral hazard.' We talk about it regarding economic activity all the time, but its true of criminals, too.

      The idea is that a person who believes the Justice System is there to "protect them" is more likely to take these things to trial and then get convicted, while the 'real' criminals know that they can accept a plea deal and get out in half the time, or less. Sometimes much less, depending on the evidence itself.

      Minimum Sentencing laws end up perverting the Justice System.