If you were not already convinced that mandatory minimum sentencing laws are a colossal fraud, recent developments in New York City should convert you.
Three years ago, football star Plaxico Burress was indicted after accidentally shooting himself in the leg in a city nightclub. Though Burress was not a resident of New York State, carried the gun for personal protection, did not hurt anyone other than himself, and might not have been aware of the state's strict gun law, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg pressed prosecutors to throw the book at him. To cut him any slack, Bloomberg said, would make "a sham, a mockery of the law." The mayor said the law must apply to everyone equally, regardless of status or circumstances. "Our children are getting killed with guns in the street. Our police are getting killed ... That's why the state legislature passed the automatic sentence if you get caught with an illegal gun," he said.
The state legislature passed the gun bill with the automatic sentence (aka mandatory minimum) in 2005, in part, because Bloomberg lobbied so hard for it. Though carrying a loaded illegal gun was already illegal, Bloomberg thought the existing law had "an exception in practice that you could drive a truck through," according to his Criminal Justice Coordinator John Fleinblatt. What was the loophole? "If the facts of the case suggested to the judge that there was some sympathetic reason why the defendant should not face time in jail, they could sentence them to anything they wanted, including just probation," Fleinblatt explained.
The Bloomberg-backed law required that every individual found guilty of illegal handgun possession serve at least 3½ years in state prison. No longer would judges be bothered to actually consider "the facts of the case" or to show mercy on "sympathetic" defendants. "Now, if you are convicted," a satisfied Bloomberg said, "you will serve a minimum of 3½ years behind bars -- no exceptions."
Over the past few weeks, Jerome and Graves, two out-of-state residents facing 3½-year mandatory minimums for carrying illegal guns in New York City, were given plea deals that allowed both to avoid spending a single day in jail. Jerome's case attracted the most attention because he was a former Marine who was "caught" after asking a security guard at the Empire State Building where he could store his gun while touring the popular site. Jerome was licensed to carry a gun in his home state of Indiana, but said he did now know he couldn't carry a gun in New York. In the end, he and Graves were happy to take deals that kept them out of prison.
Plaxico Burress was not so lucky. He was offered a deal by prosecutors, too, but it included substantial jail time. Rather than serve 3½ years, he could plead guilty and serve two. Because the law does not require prosecutors to prove criminal intent, Burress had no choice. He took the deal and served his time.
Mayor Bloomberg, who pressed for the "no exceptions" law and for vigorous prosecution of Burress, was inexplicably unbothered by the no-jail deals for Jerome and Graves. He told the Village Voice, "I think [sentencing] depends on the circumstances. I don't know...some of these out-of-towners come here and, in all fairness, they might not know about our gun laws...but that's why you don't have an automatic everything. You have a judge who makes intelligent decisions and makes decisions based on their experiences."
The mayor's response flatly contradicts his earlier statements in support of the mandatory gun law. Worse, it betrays a lack of understanding (or a double dose of deception) about how mandatory minimum sentences work. Surely the mayor knows that the very nature of mandatory minimums prevents judges from making "intelligent decisions ... based on their experiences." But to admit that New York's gun law, like other mandatory minimum sentencing laws, creates (rather than eliminates) sentencing disparities is to reveal it for what it is: a total fraud.