Anti-crime also anti-justice

May 20, 2012


So the people got sick of it, all those criminals being coddled by all those bleeding heart liberal judges with all their soft-headed concern for rights and rehabilitation. And a wave swept this country in the Reagan years, a wave ridden by pundits and politicians seeking power, a wave that said, no mercy, no more. From now on, judges would be severely limited in the sentences they could hand down for certain crimes, required to impose certain punishments whether or not they thought those punishments fit the circumstances at hand. From now on, there was a new mantra in American justice. From now on, we would be “tough on crime.”

We got tough on Jerry DeWayne Williams, a small-time criminal who stole a slice of pizza from a group of children. He got 25 years.

We got tough on Duane Silva, a guy with an IQ of 71 who stole a VCR and a coin collection. He got 30 to life.

We got tough on Dixie Shanahan, who shot and killed the husband who had beaten her for three days straight, punching her in the face, pounding her in the stomach, dragging her by the hair, because she refused to have an abortion. She got 50 years.

We got tough on Jeff Berryhill, who got drunk one night, kicked in an apartment door and punched a guy who was inside with Berryhill’s girlfriend. He got 25 years.

Now, we have gotten tough on Marissa Alexander. She is the Jacksonville, Fla., woman who said her husband flew into a violent rage and tried to strangle her when he found text messages to her first husband on her phone. She said she fled to her car, but in her haste, forgot her keys. She took a pistol from the garage and returned to the house for them. When her husband came after her again, she fired — into the ceiling. The warning shot made him back off. No one was hurt.

Like Shanahan before her, Alexander was offered a plea bargain. Like Shanahan, she declined, reasoning that no one would convict her under the circumstances. Like Shanahan, she was wrong.

Earlier this month, Alexander got 20 years for aggravated assault. And like Shanahan, like Berryhill, Williams, Silva and Lord only knows how many others, she received that outlandish sentence not because the judge had a heart like Simon LeGree’s, but because he was constrained by so-called “mandatory-minimum” sentencing guidelines that tie judges’ hands, allow them no leeway for consideration, compassion, context or common sense. In other words, they prohibit judges from judging.

Charles Smith, the judge who sent Shanahan away, put it best. He said the sentence he was required to impose “may be legal, but it is wrong.” Amen.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.” In a nation where we execute people based on no evidence save eyewitness testimony, it is hard to imagine what meaning that prohibition still holds. But assuming it means anything, surely it means you can’t draw a 20-year sentence for shooting a ceiling.

Except that Alexander just did.

In restricting judges from judging, we have instituted a one-size-fits-all version of justice that bears little resemblance to the real thing. It proceeds from the same misguided thinking that produced the absurd “zero tolerance” school drug policies that routinely get children suspended for bringing aspirin and Midol to class. In both cases, there is this silly idea that by requiring robotic adherence to inflexible rules we will produce desirable results.

By now, it should be obvious how wrongheaded and costly that reasoning was — and how urgently we need to roll back the wave that swept over us in the Reagan years. It is understandable that the nation wanted to get tough on crime.

But we have been rather hard on justice, too.

— Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wedneday on


gudpoynt 1 year, 10 months ago

Another Pitt's article.

Queue slanderous Pavlovian drool.


Crazy_Larry 1 year, 10 months ago

The hoodlums of today do not fear going to prison. Prison should be feared and not seen as a place for free room and board... I have an idea on how we can bring consequences back into our prison system. The prisons will have no cable television, no climate control, and no windows. Seeing the sun will be a privilege that a prisoner must earn. The prison will operate on a merit system. If a prisoner does what they're supposed to do and stays out of trouble they will advance upwards (literally) in the prison structure. If a prisoner continues to act up and cause trouble they will move downwards until they're in the basement of the prison. Now, in order to keep the prison from becoming overcrowded, we'll completely flood the basement every once in a while in the middle of the night and without warning. I think we'd have less crime if the prisons were operated like this. Now, straighten up and 'ack' right you sons of mothers.


verity 1 year, 10 months ago

This is undoubtably a serious problem---mandatory terms and sentencing discretion have both led to injustice. Maybe there could be some compromise that would work better than either of these ways?

However, I think that a big step in the right direction would be to de-privatize jails. That would take away some of the incentive to have such a large percentage of our population in jail.

We also seem to have moved away from efforts at rehabilitation. Before anybody starts yelling, I realize that rehabilitation doesn't work with everybody, but when we send people back out into society with no way to support themselves or even how to make good decisions, we are just asking for recidivism. It is better for all of us to spend some money on rehabilitation than to have a revolving door.


50YearResident 1 year, 11 months ago

The Juvinile Justice System is where small time petty thieves learn they can "get away" with crimes all the way up to murder and be free from a permanent record. The system needs to be changed back to the time I was a kid. That is when if you did the crime you did the time. Make juvinile records a permanent part of teen's records with no free pass for age and see how crime can be brought under control again. No Free Pass for Teens.


Satirical 1 year, 11 months ago

Anti-Pitts also anti-ignorance

Hard cases make bad law. Rather than changing all sentencing restrictions as Pitts suggests, how about just changing the ones which don't make sense. I would rather see mandatory minimums than forum shopping for biased judges.


grammaddy 1 year, 11 months ago

There is no REAL justice in America.


FalseHopeNoChange 1 year, 11 months ago

Corzine and Holder are still 'free' from "justice".

They thought they could "get away with it" and have.


cato_the_elder 1 year, 11 months ago

It's "Simon Legree," not "Simon LeGree."

Looks like the self-proclaimed expert on the history of race relations in America has never read "Uncle Tom's Cabin."


jhawkinsf 1 year, 11 months ago

So the "tough on crime" philosophy isn't working well, according to Mr. Pitts. Yet he admits that the people got sick of the "soft on crime" philosophy that preceded it. And one must wonder if Mr. Pitts really favors allowing judges to judge, given the likelihood that one judge might impose a severe sentence while another might impose a lesser sentence for similar crimes. And that would likely be exacerbated if things like race and class were involved. I'm guessing that Mr. Pitts cannot find a system he would find universally acceptable. Rather than rage against a complex system that will never be perfect, maybe Mr. Pitts should go to that career criminal who stole a slice of pizza from some kids, look him in the eye, and say to him, "what were you thinking, fool".


Flap Doodle 1 year, 11 months ago

Jerry Williams wound up serving a bit more than 5 years of his sentence. Regarding his background: " ..In 1985, he was arrested twice on suspicion of car theft and was convicted of receiving stolen property. Over the next several years, Williams racked up convictions for drug possession, vehicle theft and robbery, serving time in jail and on probation...." Jerry's concerned now that his chosen life of crime has gotten him tagged as a habitual offender. Boo freaking hoo.


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