Judges could lose discretion under U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' plan

Posted at 4:43 PM, May 10, 2017

CINCINNATI -- Mandatory minimum sentences may soon be back in federal courts under a "get tough on crime" plan from the nation's highest-ranking law enforcement officer.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is proposing tough charges for the worst crimes and more leniency for low-level drug offenses.

That may take some of the discretion away from federal judges, something that judges in the Hamilton County courthouse have at the ready.

For example, Christina Johnson knows she got a second chance Wednesday from Hamilton County Drug Court Judge Kim Burke. Johnson was there on a charge of heroin possession, but her sentence was 34 days already spent in jail.

"I think I worked hard for what I got," Johnson said. "I did everything I was supposed to."

Extensive treatment and a 2-year-old son were factors that Burke took into consideration. Not having that discretion would slow down the recovery, Johnson said.

"If you're working hard for it, I think that would get in the way of it," Johnson said.

Judge Burke handles low-level felony cases, drug possession or deception in order to get drugs.

"What I'm dealing with is a range of cases -- the presumption is the person is eligible for community control -- and with that, what I look at is what type of treatment is most appropriate for those persons," Burke said.

Sessions' plans could mean a return to mandatory minimum sentencing, something Burke said might handcuff a judge.

"I enjoy that discretion because it allows a person's individual circumstance to be taken into consideration," Burke said.

Community outreach advocate Aaron Pullins likes to see judges use discretion in sentencing. He helps people with records find work and housing to turn their lives around.

The term "mandatory minimum" is something Pullins calls unjust.

"It's going to increase mass incarceration because it's going to take the human element out of it to really look at an individual, of what he would become with the right resources and the right people who believe in him, in his life," Pullins said.