One month ago, Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News pundit, brought a horrifying
story to the public’s attention. In darkest Vermont—homeland of radical
ice cream dealers and noisy presidential candidates—an uncaring judge
had denied justice to a small child. Judge Edward Cashman sentenced a
man who raped a young girl for four years to a measly 60 days in
prison. According to O’Reilly, the judge doesn’t believe in punishing
sex offenders, perfect evidence for the pressing need for harsher
mandatory minimum sentences to keep liberal judges like Cashman in
line. What better proof could one want of arrogant liberal judges
completely distorting the law to suit their own ideology, right? It’s
almost too horrifying to be true—and it isn’t.
Mark Hulett is, by most definitions, a bad person; he had
sexual contact with a six-year-old girl until she turned ten. Sadly,
Hulett is also mentally retarded, with an I.Q. between 75 and 85 and no
understanding of why his conduct was considered inappropriate. In fact,
he was invited to sleep in the same bed with his victim by her parents.
Faced with Hulett’s guilty plea, Judge Cashman—a Vietnam War
veteran and former prosecutor known for handing down harsh sentences
from the bench—found himself up against a classic dilemma: seek
rehabilitation or settle for retribution. In this case, a bizarre twist
in Vermont law made the choice particularly stark. Because Hulett was
classified as “low risk” by the state corrections department, he would
be ineligible to receive mental health treatment in a traditional
prison. To get Hulett into a treatment program, Judge Cashman had to
keep him out of jail.
Cashman made his decision: a sentence of 10 years to life—with
all but 60 days suspended. Hulett would begin a treatment program for
sex offenders after 60 days, but if he failed to complete the program
or violated any of a list of other requirements, he could find himself
in prison for the rest of his life. Last week, Hulett was reclassified
as “high risk” by the state corrections department, rendering it
possible for Cashman to place him in a prison-based treatment program.
Cashman extended Hulett’s sentence to a minimum of three years, again
requiring that he receive treatment or face an even longer sentence.
What I find most disturbing about the whole episode is its
effect on the political climate in Vermont. The case, and O’Reilly’s
story, has given a boost to Republicans in the state legislature who
want to require judges to give harsher sentences to criminals.
Ironically, the Vermont assemblymen couldn’t have asked for a better
illustration of why mandatory minimums are such a despicably bad idea.
Mandatory minimums rely on the idea that legislators, not
judges, are the best people to decide how much time criminals should
spend in jail, an idea that would be funny if it wasn’t so frightening.
After all, if legislators are making sentencing decisions, then the
facts of each case, along with any mitigating or exacerbating
circumstances, are rendered irrelevant. Legislators may complain about
justices legislating from the bench, but in imposing stricter
sentencing guidelines, lawmakers are judging from the legislature.
Judge Cashman faced a tough decision, but he was the most qualified
individual to make it, certainly more qualified than politicians in a
far-away assembly house.
Defenders of mandatory minimum sentences argue that the
people—or their elected representatives—should be deciding how long
criminals stay in prison. But O’Reilly’s politically motivated
mischaracterization of the Cashman case illustrates the need for
independent judges who can weigh all the facts and provide a fair
ruling. Sentencing decisions shouldn’t be made in the political sphere,
where ideologues like O’Reilly can use misleading stories to obscure
the facts and whip up the public’s bloodlust.
O’Reilly wasn’t really concerned about the punishment of one
man. He used the case to serve a broader agenda, an agenda that calls
for taking sentencing decisions out of the hands of judges. But, by
showing that he and his allies are willing to play politics with such
an important decision, O’Reilly undermined his own argument. If
justice, not politics, is to determine sentencing decisions, then
judges, not politicians and pundits, must decide.
Samuel M. Simon ’06 is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.