“Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long,” Kennedy said in remarks prepared for delivery to the annual meeting of the American Bar Association.
“I can accept neither the necessity nor the wisdom of federal mandatory minimum sentences,” Kennedy said. “In too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise or unjust.”
Kennedy is a moderate conservative placed on the court by former President Ronald Reagan. His criticism puts him at odds with Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, who wants prosecutors to closely monitor which judges impose more lenient sentences than federal guidelines recommend. Such oversight, critics say, could limit judicial independence.
Kennedy said he agrees with the need for federal sentencing guidelines. The 15-year-old system gives judges a range of possible punishments for most crimes and eliminates some of the disparities in terms imposed by different judges for the same crime.
Still, the guidelines lead to longer prison terms than were common before, Kennedy said.
“We should revisit this compromise,” he said. “The federal sentencing guidelines should be revised downward.”
Prosecutors often ask for sentences at or near the top of the guideline range, and defense lawyers ask for terms at or even below the bottom. Judges have some freedom to “downwardly depart,” from the guidelines and hand down a lesser punishment.
The justice asked the ABA to lobby Congress to repeal mandatory minimum sentence laws, even though they have withstood court scrutiny