Byline: Frank J. Murray, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy last night proposed repeal of mandatory minimum sentences and mercy for those serving them, five months after he cast the deciding vote to allow California to give petty thieves 50 years to life.
"Our resources are misspent, our punishments too severe, our sentences too long," Justice Kennedy said in San Francisco, where he delivered the keynote speech of the American Bar Association's annual meeting.
"It is a grave mistake to retain a policy just because a court finds it constitutional," he said in an obvious reference to the court's March 5 ruling upholding the California "three strikes" law requiring a minimum of 25 years for a felon with serious prior offenses even if the third strike is a misdemeanor.
Justice Kennedy voted with the majority in two 5-4 decisions that day, upholding the nation's longest mandatory minimum sentence for nonviolent larceny or other "petty" offenses.
Last night Justice Kennedy called on the 410,000-member organization of lawyers to crusade against such sentences and other "inadequacies and the injustices" in the nation's prisons and sentencing policies.
"Courts may conclude the legislature is permitted to choose long sentences, but that does not mean long sentences are wise or just," he told fellow lawyers, noting the nation spends $40 billion a year to confine prisoners.
He urged the ABA to lobby legislatures to abandon mandatory minimums, influence governors to use their pardon powers to reduce long terms and seek changes in federal sentence guideline.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the University of Southern California law professor who unsuccessfully argued to the Supreme Court that Leandro Andrade's 50-years-to-life sentence for stealing videotapes violated the Eighth Amendment, welcomed the proposals but questioned Justice Kennedy's continued stand that such severe sentences are constitutional.
"I just find it hard to reconcile what he's saying with his decisive vote for the conclusion that it's not cruel and unusual punishment to put a person in prison for life where the individual never committed a violent felony," Mr. Chemerinsky said in a telephone interview about the speech.
"I applaud what Justice Kennedy says. Just because the Supreme Court said it's constitutional doesn't mean it's desirable. I do think it makes no sense in a time of huge budget shortfalls, if it ever makes sense, to put people in prison for 50 years for shoplifting," Mr. …