Judges Act for Justice

by Diane Dimond on April 8, 2013

Judges CAN Right Judicial Wrongs

We often hear people associated with the criminal justice system complain about how it works – or fails to work. Prosecutors, defense attorneys, police and social workers all cite specifics that they believe tip the scales of fairness.

Very rarely – if ever – do we hear from a judge. The ethics of their profession mandate they remain mum about public policy issues while on the bench.

Even after they retire the public rarely gets the benefit of their insight. I think that is a shame. Who better to help teach the public about how politician’s laws – sometimes crafted and passed with headlines in mind – actually affect citizens?

This is a story about not one — but two — judges from different states that came together to pro-actively help a woman they believed had been given a raw deal at sentencing. Their actions speak volumes about our justice system and proves there really is no such thing as a one-size-fits all sentencing.

Dallaire at Home-Thanks to New York Times

In 2003, Denise Dallaire, a college graduate, was convicted for possessing and selling a relatively small amount of crack cocaine in Rhode Island. Seven years earlier she had been arrested on a similar charge. (She explained she really wasn’t into drugs herself but enjoyed the money she could make selling them) When Dallaire attended college in Connecticut she had once thrown a glass and injured someone in a bar fight and had been arrested.

By the time Dallaire, at age 26, came before Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Lagueux to face the last charge she had three strikes against her. Under mandatory sentencing laws she was automatically considered a “career criminal.” Judge Lagueux made it clear at sentencing that his hands were tied – he was forced by law to pass a stiff sentence.

U.S. District Judge Ronald Lagueux

“This is one case where the guidelines work an injustice,” he said that day in 2003, “And I’d like to do something about it but I can’t.” Lagueux sentenced Dallaire to 15 years in prison. That moment bothered the judge for all the years Denise served her time at the federal prison for women in Danbury, Connecticut.

Over the last decade Dallaire had been an exemplary inmate. She made thousands of blankets, hats and pillows to donate to children suffering from cancer, she organized fellow inmates to decorate and sell Christmas trees on behalf of cancer charities. Dallaire admitted she deserved prison and that she had made, “a lot of stupid and ridiculous decisions,” in her early life. She seemed resigned to her fate and looked forward to her release in 2018. She had no possibility of early release.

At Danbury Prison Denise Dallaire met another judge – U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson from Brooklyn. Every year Gleeson makes a pilgrimage to the prison so as to remind himself where he sends defendants. The judge takes his New York University Law School students and clerks with him. Gleeson got to know Denise and told the New York Times he came to realize her case was a textbook example of how mandated sentences do more to ruin lives than protect society.

Judge Gleeson Made it a Habit to Visit Prison

“There are a lot of people like Denise doing bone-crushing time under the old sentencing regime,” Judge Gleeson said. “We need to try to find ways to help them.”

It is important to note that just two years after Denise was sentenced the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory sentencing guidelines, originally designed to target drug kingpins, were unconstitutional. Congress agreed and has twice passed laws to reduce sentences for crack cocaine convictions like Denise’s.

Judge Gleeson wants to start what he calls, “The Mercy Project” wherein pro bono lawyers would help the hundreds of prisoners (thousands, by some estimates) languishing under antiquated sentences. With that in mind, Gleeson convinced a friend, a top New York lawyer named Jonathan Polkes, to seek a presidential pardon for Dallaire. Part of the process required them to go back to Judge Lagueux to sign-on to the idea.

Lagueux earnestly wanted to help Denise but didn’t think the pardon idea would work. Instead, he pointed out a procedural flaw that he, himself, had made at sentencing that could be exploited. Lagueux suggested bringing the case back to Rhode Island on the basis of his self-reported mistake.

Mercy for Dying Woman & Daughter

Last month, Denise Dallaire was brought before the now 81-year-old judge who had sentenced her so many years earlier.

“I felt bound by those mandatory guidelines and I hated them,” Judge Lagueux explained to the sobbing prisoner before him. “I’m sorry I sent you away for 15 years.”

The judge then instructed that Dallaire be released on time served. He told her to hurry home to her sick mother in Groton, Connecticut. She was able to be with her mother for her final eleven days. As for her future, Denise says she wants to dedicate her life to helping others who are serving long sentences win commutation like she did.

Certainly, mandatory sentencing has helped lock up many real career criminals for a long time. But over-sentencing the undeserving doesn’t keep us safer. Keeping them in prison long after the law that put them there has been struck down only adds to our mammoth prison costs. And, with every year that ticks by it eats away at the prisoner’s chance for re-claiming a productive life on the outside.

I like Judge Gleeson’s idea of a selective Mercy Project to review the sentences of prisoners caught in the cracks like Denise. Any other justice-seeking judges out there interested?

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 12:39 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Nancy Madigan writes:

“I very much enjoyed your column today, “Judges seek…injustice.” Denise Dallaire was very fortunate to have had U.S. District Court Judge John Gleeson come into her life. Transform it, it turns out, by his going on that pilgrimage each year, as you mentioned. It’s so beautiful I have to repeat the words. “…so as to remind himself where he sends his defendants.” This information, that he presents himself, even takes his law school students and clerks with him–you don’t hear of it. I don’t know if he gets paid for that; I doubt it: maybe it’s a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. part of his style–a try at empathy as well as knowledge. The act speaks volumes.

It also represents a practical solution for getting to the bottom of a huge problem as well. It could sound over-simplified, but, if more politicians, more people who oversee Medicare and Medicaid, those who make decisions over administering Social Security, would, even or especially, as part of their paying job, track decisions as to where life has taken an individual, a family, a prisoner just released–if this was part of somebody’s job, this up-close and personal approach, it could quell some of the chaos we now more than ever are experiencing in this world. Even better, possibly, it has a rippling effect, to hear of something just, and moral, as in this tracking, as Judge Gleeson does, if only one day’s worth in year. And look, not just one, but two judges had the desire to help this young woman. Judge Lagueux even apologized. We talk and read about this and that happening in the millions–that number ‘millions’ covers individuals– flood victims, children dying of hunger, people defrauding Medicare, people horribly underpaid for their toil. The only real solution I can see is the slow and steady picking up of each issue off the desk, and dealing with it, one case by one case. ( Maybe a real person would frequently answer the phone–that could even provide some real people a real job.) We, as a culture and a society (that unfortunately other countries want to emulate) have gotten all mixed up and churned up, turning us into a people without values or common sense. Right now, look at us, owning and using weapons so casually and viciously–isn’t it ironic here on the anniversary of MLK’s death–that we are going through this?

I enjoyed your column.

Sincerely,
Nancy Madigan

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Facebook Friend Davidov Imbriacovich writes:

“Love it, Diane. Mandatory minimum sentences are tearing communities and families apart.”

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 3:35 pm

Facebook Friend Elizabeth Mc Grory Manning writes:

“I am a retired NYPD officer. As I started to read the article, I was a bit angry. I didn’t like the remark of enjoying selling drugs for the money. Or throwing a glass in a bar and causing injury. I didn’t know where the story was going. Until I read further. I am happy this woman was able to spend her mom’s final days at her side. I am glad men who truly understand what justice means realize an injustice when they see it. I am humbled by this woman. She accepted her fate. I hope the destiny that lies ahead for her is an amazing one.”

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Facebook Friend Fred Mizzi writes:

“Yes I’m still upset on 60 minutes a man spent 41 yrs for a crime they know he didint commit but told him they will fight it to sapreme court if he did’nt plead no contest so the state wouldn’t have to pay him and we say justice in USA”

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 3:37 pm

Facebook Friend Sharon Rager writes:

“A good way to reduce the populations in jails and prisons would be to thoroughly review and compare inmate sentences to find inequities – as there probably many …”

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 4:47 pm

Twitter pal kimmiegirl2010 writes:

“@DiDimond Agreed!! This Would also help prison over- population as well!”

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Diane Dimond April 8, 2013 at 6:29 pm

Twitter Pal gritslady writes:

” @DiDimond Sadly most judges are sitting on the bench till retirement so they can collect retirement checks while pursuing other work.”

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