Top judge: Mandatory minimum sentences backed by Trump’s AG are ‘bad policy’

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s chief federal judge is speaking out against laws that require mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, amid a renewed push for them by the Trump administration.

Rhode Island U.S. District Chief Judge William Smith, who was appointed to the federal bench in 2002, said mandatory minimum laws strip judges of discretion when deciding what an appropriate sentence should be for a particular defendant.

“I’m not a fan of mandatory minimums. I am against them,” Smith told Target 12 in an interview. “I think they are bad policy and I think it would be a mistake for Congress to go in the direction of enacting more mandatory minimums.”

Mandatory minimums are laws that establish automatic prison terms for certain criminal charges.

Critics say the policy is unfair because it can lead to minor players involved in a crime – such as in a drug case – being punished at the same level as a major player. Mandatory minimums have also been blamed for the nation’s ballooning prison population.

In May, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo ordering prosecutors across the country to pursue “the most serious” charges and “those that carry the most substantial guidelines sentence, including mandatory minimum sentences.” It was a reversal of a directive issued by former Attorney General Eric Holder during the Obama administration.

Smith said he has not seen the impact of the Sessions’ order yet but added, “We’re just waiting to see what happens.”

Stephen Dambruch, Rhode Island’s acting U.S. attorney, defended Sessions’ policy.

“The [Justice] Department’s charging policy returns to a longstanding tradition that prosecutors charge the most serious, readily probable offense while enforcing the laws as passed by Congress,” Dambruch said in a statement. “It also allows prosecutors to deviate from that standard with supervisory approval when they believe appropriate, provided that their reasons are documented.”

He added, “Attorney General Sessions’ directive returns to our prosecutors necessary tools to fight violent crime, while providing discretion to handle their cases without unnecessary interference from Washington.”

Peter Neronha, who served as Rhode Island’s U.S. attorney from 2009 until earlier this year, said charges that triggered a mandatory minimum were appropriate at times when he was in office, but his prosecutors would examine those cases “carefully.”

“Recognizing that mandatory minimums can tie [a judge’s] hands and therefore making sure that when we sought one, when we triggered a mandatory minimum sentence as prosecutors, that we were really sure that the circumstances and the defendant really warranted it,” Neronha said.

Smith said there have been times when he has told a defendant he wished he could give a less-severe sentence but could not.

“There are many, many horror stories about the application of mandatory minimums to defendants who really should not have gone to prison for as long as they did,” Smith said. “I think it’s bad policy to take the discretion away from trial court judges.”

Watch the full interview with Judge Smith on this weekend’s Newsmakers

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

Jared Pliner contributed to this report