Mandatory minimum sentences consistently have been demonstrated to be racially discriminatory ... Corrections is facing a crisis based on the number of prisoners, both pretrial and sentenced, who are currently beset with mental health issues.
By RICHARD MEEHAN
The Cool Justice Report
Dec. 7, 2007
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com
The Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association (CCDLA) is a statewide organization of approximately 350 lawyers, in both the public and private sectors, dedicated to defending persons accused of criminal offenses.
Founded in 1988, CCDLA has worked to improve the criminal justice system by ensuring that the individual rights guaranteed by the Connecticut and United States constitutions are applied fairly and equally and that those rights are not diminished. At the same time, CCDLA strives to improve and suggest changes to the laws and procedures that apply to criminal justice.
Recently, CCDLA's President-Elect and my partner, Attorney Edward J. Gavin, of Bridgeport, testified before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee on proposals for criminal justice reform. Many of the proposals are aimed at reformation of Connecticut's parole system, spawned by the recent Chesire killings. Also under consideration by the Legislature are proposals for increasing the number of mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain crimes and the creation of a "three strikes" bill that would severely punish those convicted of multiple felonies.
Mandatory minimum sentences require judges to impose sentences without discretion and without regard to the individual issues involved in a particular case. Judges possess the requisite skills and training to balance the needs of society for accountability and retribution with the needs of the accused for rehabilitation.
Mandatory minimum sentences consistently been been demonstrated to be racially discriminatory. The imposition of greater mandatory minimum sentences also makes the system appear dishonest.
Instead of plea bargaining sentences the parties will engage in charge bargaining to achieve the plea agreement that everyone thinks is fair.
Congress is considering reform of federal drug sentencing laws that punish crimes involving crack cocaine significantly more severely than those involving cocaine. The impetus for this reform is the realization that far too many minorities are serving disproportionately more severe sentences than their Caucasian counterparts for the same conduct simply because the substance is crack rather than cocaine. This is not an endorsement of drug use but recognition that certain segments of the population are more likely to be involved in crack cocaine use.
As Attorney Gavin testified, CCDLA supports intelligent and fair criminal justice reform. It is the position of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association that the Cheshire case demonstrates the glaring problems that Parole and Probation face in reintegrating released prisoners back into society. Rather than increasing funding for new prisons, the money would be better allocated toward providing re-assimilation housing and treatment programs for released prisoners.
Overreaction to the Cheshire case will most severely affect the minority population in the prisons, on parole or probation and in the court system. Connecticut already has one of the worst racial disparity sentencing percentages in the country.
Corrections is facing a crisis based on the number of prisoners, both pretrial and sentenced, who are currently beset with mental health issues. The response should not be to build more prisons to house the mentally ill. The appropriate response should be to build a new state psychiatric facility with differing levels of security and to provide greater funds to the community for mental health treatment. When the state closed down two state psychiatric hospitals in the early 80's, reducing the state psychiatric hospitals to a singular facility, not enough monies were provided to the local communities to deal with the burgeoning mental health problems in the general population. It is a sad commentary that the systemic reaction has been to put those afflicted with mental health problems in jail.
Bridgeport attorney Richard Meehan Jr. was the lead defense counsel for former Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim's corruption trial. Meehan is certified as a criminal trial specialist by the National Board of Trial Advocacy since 1994 and serves on the organizations Board of Examiners. He is a Charter Fellow, Litigation Counsel of America -- Trial Lawyer Honorary Society. Meehan has also obtained multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements in complex medical and dental malpractice and personal injury litigation. He is a past president of the Greater Bridgeport Bar Association and appears regularly on Court TV. Website, www.meehanlaw.com