The Des Moines Register
Saturday, June 1, 1996, Page 8A.
letters@dmreg.com

The Registerís Editorials

An unreasonable system

Trimble sentence may seem unfair,
but rigid rules would be worse.

     There are two systems of criminal justice in the United States: one at 
the federal level; one at the state.  The differences are striking.  You 
need only look at the case of James Trimble - the former Urbandale police 
officer and anti-drug counselor convicted of possessing illegal drugs - to 
see how different.
     Trimble was arrested by Des Moines police five months ago carrying 
more than 190 grams of methamphetamine.  He pleaded guilty to possession 
with intent to sell, and prosecutors recommended a 10-year prison sentence.  
Instead, Judge Leo Oxberger sentenced Trimble to two years' probation, a 
$1,000 fine and 100 hours of community service.
     Critics outraged by Trimble's sentence would have been pleased, 
however, had he been convicted in federal court, where a similar offense 
would likely have resulted in a sentence of as many as 15 years in prison.  
And that is the equivalent of a 30-year sentence in Iowa.  Whereas 
prisoners typically serve less than half their sentences in Iowa state 
prisons, there is no possibility of parole in the federal system.
     Something obviously is out of kilter.  The question is whether it is 
the federal system, or the state.  In general, the Iowa system makes more 
sense, although specific cases - like Trimble's - may seem unfair.  Indeed, 
an example could have been made of Trimble.  He is not just another first-
time offender; he was sworn to uphold the law and entrusted with the 
education of Urbandale schoolchildren.  Surely that makes him worthy of an 
exceptional punishment, if for no other reason than to send a message to 
the very people he was paid to counsel on the evils of drugs.
     In a sense, though, James Trimble is a fitting example of that 
message: He has lost everything because of drugs.  Prison will not "reform" 
him.  He is not likely to repeat his offense.  His cell would be better 
occupied by a potential murderer.
     These are the sorts of difficult issues judges must weigh.  The job 
cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula, although that is what the 
federal system attempts to do.  About 10 years ago, Congress created the 
U.S. Sentencing Commission to establish a set of "guidelines" for criminal 
penalties.  In drug cases, the guidelines take into account the amount of 
drugs seized, prior criminal records, violence involved, use of a gun, 
etc., to arrive at a sentence that must be served in full.  Federal judges 
are, with a few exceptions, unable to depart from the sentencing 
guidelines.
     As a result, in the federal system drug offenders serve very long 
sentences.  It is not unusual to hear of cases of young men convicted of 
merely carrying drugs who will be near retirement age before their release 
from prison.  This policy, the result of macho anti-crime rhetoric in 
Congress, has had tragic consequences for individuals, and for the nation.
     In a recent opinion, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Myron Bright of North 
Dakota cited a Federal Judicial Center study showing that by next year the 
federal prison population is expected to reach 110,000, two and a half 
times that of just a decade earlier, at an annual cost of well over $2 
billion.  And 70 percent of this phenomenal growth has been due to federal 
drug cases.  "The public needs to know that unnecessary, harsh and 
unreasonable drug sentences serve to waste billions of dollars without 
doing much good for society," Bright wrote.  "We have an unreasonable 
system."
     Bright is right; the federal sentencing guidelines are unreasonable.  
It's possible to disagree with a judge's decision in an individual case - 
as some have with Judge Oxberger's sentence in the Trimble case - but on 
the whole the state system works.  As critical as Iowa's prison-crowding 
problem is, it would be magnified exponentially if Iowa judges were forced 
to send every drug dealer to prison for a decade or more and there were no 
chance for parole.