Friday, June 26, 2020
DOJ’s stunning admission in the Roger Stone case shows unfairness of criminal justice system
Assistant United States Attorney Aaron S. J. Zelinsky’s opening remarks before the House Judiciary Committee sets out his argument that Roger Stone received preferential treatment because of his friendship with President Trump. Most would agree that similarly situated criminal defendants should be treated the same, regardless of their relationship with the President. But what if that means treating everyone unjustly?
That’s the shocker in Zelinsky’s testimony — he admits that the Department of Justice always seeks to penalize those, like Roger Stone, who proceed to trial. He says: “For the Department to seek a sentence below the Guidelines in a case where the defendant went to trial and remained unrepentant is in my experience unheard of.”
A quick history. The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were enacted in 1984. The stated intent of the Guidelines were to bring uniformity to criminal sentencings. A defendant who robbed a bank in New Hampshire should get the same sentence as the defendant who robbed a bank in Texas. The system was point based — use a gun, get more points. Recruit others into the scheme, add some more. For a while these Guidelines were not guidelines at all — they were mandatory, and judges were forced to impose the calculated sentence absent very rare exceptions. On first blush, that goal of consistency seems admirable.
But the Guidelines have been a complete disaster. Judges had no discretion and complained that they were mere calculators, adding and subtracting points. What were these points even based on?
Until the Supreme Court stepped in, judges were not even permitted to consider mitigation evidence. Had the defendant led an otherwise good life? Served in the military? Raised a family on her own? Was she elderly or sick? None of it mattered. Unsurprisingly, sentences dramatically increased in the wake of the Guidelines.
In addition to sentences shooting up, the number of trials sank. Before the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were enacted in 1984, about 20% of criminal cases proceeded to trial and 80% pleaded guilty. After the Guidelines, the number of trials decreased every year and now only about 3% of cases proceed to trial. Judge Jed Rakoff pointed out that even innocent people were pleading guilty. Former Judge Gleeson explained that “the Department of Justice got in the habit long ago” of “strong arming guilty pleas” in part by using urging judges to impose “excessively harsh sentencing ranges” for defendants who have the temerity of proceeding to trial.
Roger Stone’s case is a good example of the trial tax in action. Had Stone pleaded guilty, he would have been looking at a sentence of closer to 24 months under the Guidelines. And had he met with prosecutors and cooperated, he likely would have been sentenced to probation. Because he had the audacity to go to trial, his guideline range jumped to 7-9 years even though he was a first-time non-violent offender.
Zelinsky, without any sense of horror, says everyone who goes to trial should get this severe punishment determined by some made up point system, while at the same time not taking issue with the fact that the judge in sentencing Stone determined that the Guidelines were way too harsh. He concedes that the Department of Justice advocates for these absurdly high sentences in every single case where a defendant proceeds to trial with no exception. That’s the true injustice of our system and that is what needs to be reformed. Prosecutors should never be seeking 7-9 years for an old, first-time, non-violent offender. Zelinsky is right that everyone should be treated the same, but that should be with compassion, not with a hammer.