Presiding Circuit Judge Jerry Selman described the current political climate as “frustrating” for judges because of the guidelines, which took effect in October 2013.
“We can no longer put people in jail who steal from us or who sell drugs to our children,” Selman said.
Proponents of the guidelines say that they are needed to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which are hovering at 195 percent of capacity.
In 2009, federal judges ordered officials in California to reduce the prison population after it had reached 200 percent of capacity.
Selman told Rotarians that he prefers stiff sentences because he believes that the fear of incarceration is a deterrent to crime.
As an example of the correlation, Selman shared the impact of a 60 year prison sentence he handed down to a female drug dealer.
He said he felt the sentence was justified because the woman had ruined the lives of multiple children in the black community by offering them marijuana and gradually moving them on to other narcotics.
“I had several police officers come to me and say that for at least the first six weeks after that sentence, you couldn’t find a single drug in the black section of Jasper,” Selman said.
Selman added that he expected to see an increase in crime once individuals charged with drug and theft crimes realize the implications of the sentencing guidelines.
Word recently reached him that a self-described career thief did not intend to hire a lawyer the next time he made an appearance before Selman because he could no longer receive jail time.
Selman said his opinion is that legislators are “misguided” and are using the guidelines to avoid building more prisons.
“They are looking for ways to save money that are not apparent to everyday people. If they quit patching the holes in the highway, it becomes obvious,” Selman said.
Circuit Judge Hoyt Elliott agreed that building prisons would be a more logical solution to the state’s overcrowding problem than limiting the sentencing options available to judges.
“The Legislature controls the purse strings. It wouldn’t be an easy thing for them to do, but it could be done. Tax structures could be changed. They are just not going to do it because it’s not politically popular. So they put the burden on us to relieve the overcrowding, and that is not our job to do,” Elliott said.
Circuit Judge Doug Farris said the guidelines will also undercut the incentive to participate in the county’s Drug Court program, which has had over 200 graduates since 2008 and has a success rate of more than 50 percent.
“Whatever the Legislature says, I’m going to do, but I think the best way is to give the discretion back to the judges. Sometimes we need to be lenient, and sometimes we need to be strict. Every case is different,” Farris said.
District Court Judges Henry Allred and Greg Williams also participated in the panel discussion.
Allred said the resources of the judicial system have been cut in recent years, a trend that seems likely to continue because of the state’s overpopulated prisons.
“My great fear is that the federal government is going to come down and issue these edicts about what we have to do in our prisons and ask us to spend a lot money that they (state officials) don’t have. I believe that if and when that happens, they’re going to come back to the court system and take more of our money,” Allred said.