Conservatives pushing for easing mandatory minimum prison sentences are using an unlikely selling point to their instinctively tough-on-crime colleagues: the story of Oregon ranchers whose terms of incarceration sparked the armed occupation of a federal wildlife refuge.
Federal law required ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond to be given five years in prison for starting fires that spread to federal land, even though a district court judge originally rejected the mandatory minimum sentence because he said the terms are “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses.”
But the district court’s sentencing was reversed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the terms required by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and imposed a five-year prison sentence on the Hammonds.
The father and son reported to federal prison this week, after having already served shorter sentences under the district court ruling.
Also this week, a group called the Citizens for Constitutional Freedom has been occupying an empty federal building located on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge to protest the Hammonds’ sentence, and to broadcast their larger concerns over federal control of land.
The Hammonds have distanced themselves from the protest.
Though proposals in Congress are focused on reducing mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders, who make up about half of the overburdened federal prison population, the Hammonds’ case could perhaps be received more sympathetically by those who view drugs as a means to violence.
“One of the unintended consequences of what is happening in Oregon is that people realize that when you are talking about these sentences, you are not just talking about people on drugs, you are talking about just the fact the federal government has so much control and judges have so much control over what happens,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Idaho, a leading conservative criminal justice reform advocate, in an interview with The Daily Signal.
“There are moments where you see even the judge wants to go outside the sentencing guidelines and they can’t.”
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, most of which were enacted during the tough-on-crime period of the 1980s and 1990s, require binding prison terms of a particular length and prevent judges from using their discretion to apply punishment.
Both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, with bipartisan support, have introduced legislation to reform federal sentencing laws, and President Barack Obama has declared the issue one of the few he thinks he can work with Congress this year.
But some advocates had been worried momentum for the cause had been going the other way, after the White House openly disputed a House proposal to include a “mens rea” measure requiring prosecutors to prove that suspects knowingly broke certain federal criminal laws.
Meanwhile, some critics of criminal justice reform have been trying to stoke worries by pointing to rising murder rates in certain cities last year as a reason…