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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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?