No Comment — May 24, 2010, 3:35 pm

A Judge Takes on Sentencing Guidelines

In theory, federal sentencing guidelines are supposed to insure the observance of nationwide standards in sentencing persons convicted of serious crimes. In practice, they are a nightmare requiring absurdly harsh sanctions for petty offenses, bolstering the position of publicity-seeking prosecutors, and reducing the discretion of judges who understand that the administration of justice is a prime aspect of their role. This weekend, the New York Times profiled the most widely respected federal trial judge in New York, Jack Weinstein, and his crusade against sentencing guidelines applied in victimless crime cases. It’s an essential read.

In his 43-year career as a federal judge, Jack B. Weinstein has come to be identified by his efforts to combat what he calls “the unnecessary cruelty of the law.” His most recent crusade is particularly striking because of the beneficiary: a man who has amassed a vast collection of child pornography. Judge Weinstein, who sits in the United States District Court in Brooklyn, has twice thrown out convictions that would have ensured that the man spend at least five years behind bars. He has pledged to break protocol and inform the next jury about the mandatory prison sentence that the charges carry. And he recently declared that the man, who is awaiting a new trial, did not need an electronic ankle bracelet because he posed “no risk to society.” …[A]cross the country, an increasing number of federal judges have come to their defense, criticizing changes to sentencing laws that have effectively quadrupled their average prison term over the last decade.

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Nobody in academia had ever witnessed or even heard of a performance like this before. In just a few years, in the early 1950s, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student — a student, in his twenties — had taken over an entire field of study, linguistics, and stood it on its head and hardened it from a spongy so-called “social science” into a real science, a hard science, and put his name on it: Noam Chomsky.

At the time, Chomsky was still finishing his doctoral dissertation for Penn, where he had completed his graduate-school course work. But at bedtime and in his heart of hearts he was living in Boston as a junior member of Harvard’s Society of Fellows, and creating a Harvard-level name for himself.

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