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Editorial: A judge’s apology


Hadiya Pendleton

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Updated: May 2, 2013 6:10AM

The evidence against mandatory minimum sentences keeps piling up.

Yet support builds, at least in the Illinois Legislature, where a House committee earlier this month advanced a bill that would increase the mandatory sentence for gun crimes to three years from one.

Fueled by raw emotions, lawmakers are moved to act. If only Illinois’ felony gun laws had been tougher, the argument goes, Hadiya Pendleton would be alive today.

If only.

In a March 10 editorial, we laid out why tougher mandatory minimums would do little or nothing to curb Chicago’s violence. We also laid out how current law, had it been enforced properly, could have kept Hadiya’s accused killer in prison and away from Hadiya on that shattering January day.

Allow us now to tell a story, again to make the point that this proposed harsher mandatory sentencing law would tie the hands of judges who must be allowed to make common-sense exceptions to the rules.

Enter the New England courtroom of Judge Ronald R. Lagueux. Last month, Lagueux finally set free a woman whom he had, against his better judgment, dispatched to prison for more than 15 years, as required by mandatory sentencing guidelines.

As detailed in the New York Times on Friday, Lagueux had in 2003 sentenced Denise Dallaire for selling a few ounces of crack cocaine.

When her case returned to his courtroom in February, thanks to a procedural flaw in her sentencing, 81-year-old Lagueux apologized and set her free.

“I felt bound by those mandatory guidelines and I hated them,” the judge said as Dallaire wept. “I’m sorry I sent you away for 15 years.”

Dallaire, a model prisoner, doesn’t claim she should not have been punished, telling the Times that “I made a lot of stupid and ridiculous decisions. . . . I deserved to go to prison.”

But not for 15 years for a third small-time offense, as required by law at the time. The U.S. Supreme Court has since declared those guidelines unconstitutional.

Yet another cautionary tale about the limits of strait-jacket justice and the need to allow judges to use discretion.

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