Judge Kozinski asks:
"Joel Leon Thomas, Jr., barely 24 years old when he was
sentenced, will be 73 when he gets out of prison. How did a
young man get half a century following a conviction for three
bank robberies—two of which he wasn’t present for and none
of which resulted in physical harm?"
I might add that Mr. Thomas doesn't even have much of a criminal history either. This isn't someone who's clearly unredeemable. Yet he'll likely be in prison for pretty much his entire life.
Judge Kozinski thinks Mr. Thomas is in prison forever due to a mistake by the trial judge. Maybe that's right. But Judge Kozinski believes so in dissent. The majority says that it's not a mistake. It's a result of mandatory minimums; in particular, how they work with the guidelines. And it's clear that Judge Schroeder is right, at least in part. Because as she notes, here's the law in the Ninth Circuit:
"The troublesome issue in this case arises because the
mandatory minimums must be combined with the sentence
imposed on the underlying crimes, to create a very long
sentence. Yet this does not make the sentence unreasonable
within the meaning of 18 U.S.C. § 3742. We have expressly
so recognized. We have held that the district court must
impose a mandatory minimum sentence even if doing so
“makes it impossible for the judge to impose a total sentence
that the court considers reasonable.” United States v.
Washington, 462 F.3d 1124, 1140 (9th Cir. 2006)."
So even if the total sentence is unreasonable, there's nothing the judiciary can do about it.
Look, you'll have a hard time arguing that it violates the Eighth Amendment to say that 50 years for a series of bank robberies in necessarily cruel and unusual; i.e., so unreasonable that it's a violation of the Constitution.
But when history looks back and judges the way we punish people, I don't think that it'll view fondly the fact that we threw human lives away forever for crimes in which no one got hurt and in which the defendant had the possibility of living a productive, meaningful life.
A possibility that we deliberately took away.
I'm no fan of bank robberies. But this seems too much.