Pubdate: Thu, 19 Nov 2009
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Author: Kelley Shannon, Associated Press
Bookmark: (Mandatory Minimum Sentencing)
Bookmark: (Youth)


AUSTIN, Texas --  Implementing "smart justice" can help ease the
criminal case load on prosecutors and keep society safe, Dallas County
District Attorney Craig Watkins told a federal sentencing commission

That means using programs for youthful first-time offenders who can
work toward getting their charges dismissed or fast-tracking of repeat
low-level offenders into state jails, said Watkins, who is known for
working to free wrongly convicted inmates.

Watkins said in his nearly three years in office, he has worked to
implement such "smart justice." "At the end of the day the goal is
public safety," he said, adding that it's smart use of taxpayer money
to attempt to ensure that imprisoned inmates don't repeat their crimes
when they get out of jail. "The goal is rehabilitation, as opposed to
just punishment."

Watkins has become known nationally for pressing for the exonerations
of wrongly convicted Dallas County defendants. Those exonerations did
not come up in his testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

The commission's public hearing in Austin was one of several around
the country as it reviews federal sentencing policy. Congress has the
say when it comes to making sentencing laws, but the commission makes
recommendations about the nation's complex federal sentencing system
and studies specific issues for the legislative branch.

Chief Judge William K. Sessions III of Vermont, chairman of the
commission, said the panel is continuing to examine mandatory minimum
penalties in the federal system, including disparities for crimes
involving crack and powder cocaine.

The commission heard from several Texas experts. One commission member
kept referring to the "Texas success story" of how the state has moved
to more community-based corrections programs over the past two years.

Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the
Washington, D.C.-based Pew Center on the States, said Texas is a
law-and-order and fiscally conservative state and that it is using
methods besides imprisonment in sentencing convicts. Parts of Texas
have a "very robust system of community corrections and alternatives,"
Gelb said.

Watkins said one of his office's initiatives allows misdemeanor
offenders ages 17 to 25 who have committed "youthful indiscretions" -
such as theft or marijuana possession - to take part in a program that
may eventually lead to dismissal of the charge. If the person were to
be convicted, the conviction would follow the defendant for years and
possibly prevent him or her from getting a job later on, he said.

Watkins said the program reduces the number of cases his office must
take to court, thus lowering costs. Conversely, repeat offenders who
keep breaking the law and are eligible for state jail are sent there
sooner, under provisions allowed in state law, he said.

Three federal judges also addressed the panel Thursday.

Judge Robin Cauthron of Oklahoma said she is glad judges now have more
discretion in varying from federal sentencing guidelines. That came
about because of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in recent years.

In presenting her recommendations, she said she believes federal
sentencing guidelines are often too harsh for possession of child
pornography when there's no indication that the defendant who viewed
the pornography would actually molest a child. 
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