Mandatory Minimums

Good Thing John Hinckley Jr. Only Shot the President. If He Sold Drugs, He Might Still Be Locked Up.

Attempted murder? 35 years in a hospital. Nonviolent drug charges? Life in prison.


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John Hinckley Jr. will be released from a psychiatric hospital after being confined there for 35 years for the attempted assassination of President Reagan in 1981.

Hinckley, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity at his trial, is finally rehabilitated and unlikely to commit further violence, according to a federal judge.

Some conservatives are outraged that the man who tried to kill the president is now free. Popehat's Ken White argues instead that Hinckley's release is a triumph of the rule of law:

People are outraged. Why wouldn't they be? Assassinations have cast a grim pall over American history. President Reagan was well-liked and is nearly revered in retrospect. The assassination attempt was a formative event in the memory of many people my age. How, people ask, can you shoot four people, one of them a President, and ever see the light of day again? If any act requires permanent confinement, isn't it this one?

The answer should comfort us, not terrify us: the rule of law applies to everyone, even the notorious. (Edited to add: or, at least, it ought to.)…

Is John Hinckley, Jr. dangerous to society? Doctors don't think so after 35 years, and he's successfully completed many outside visits and excursions to date. Is it dangerous to have a legal norm that the gravely mentally ill who commit violence may eventually be released? I doubt 35 years of forced treatment and confinement is the sort of lenity that leads anyone to violence. What about exceptions to the rule of law? If we ignore the rules and evidence because a particular person is sufficiently notorious, because of our gut, how dangerous is that?

I agree with White. But on a different note, Hinckley's release had me thinking about Luis Rivera, Barbra Scrivner, and Antoinette Frink: the three nonviolent offenders who received a cumulative 185+ years in prison for far lesser crimes than shooting the president. All three were convicted of nonviolent drug charges. Rivera was convicted of trafficking cocaine and was sentenced to life in prison. He served 30 years of that sentence—nearly as much time as Hinckley.

Rivera and Scrivner clearly broke the law. (Frink's case is less clear—she denies having any knowledge that her auto dealership was being utilized by drug dealers.) But were their mistakes serious enough to cost them years of their lives? Did they deserve to rot in prison, hoping that their sentences might one day be commuted? (Eventually, all three were released.)

The problem, of course, is that mandatory minimum sentences prevent judges from using their discretion. They are forced to to hand out ridiculous sentences to people convicted of drug crimes.

That's why bipartisan criminal justice reform is so desperately needed. Unfortunately, efforts to pass legislation have stalled this year.