Ultimate Arbiters: A Conversation on the Judiciary’s Pursuit of Justice

This morning, summit attendees heard from Judge Richard Nygaard and Judge Ricardo Hinojosa regarding the range of problems affecting our criminal justice system. The conversation ranged from how federal sentencing guidelines came about to mandatory minimums to overcriminalization to the need for measures that prevent crime before it arises, in particular for youth in impoverished communities.

Hinojosa began by describing sentencing in the federal court system, noting that sentencing guidelines were put in place in order to reduce the amount of variance offenders received in terms of their sentences. However, sentencing guidelines were meant to be just that, guidelines, while preserving important discretion for judges to adjust the punishment to truly fit the nature of a particular crime.

Hinojosa did not express as much concern over mandatory minimums as Nygaard did, but he noted that significant reform is needed to “safety valve” provisions associated with mandatory sentencing guidelines. Allowing judges to depart from otherwise mandatory sentences in a well-specified set of cases could improve the use of a tool in which Hinojosa does see value. Moreover, he expressed support for reducing the length of some mandatory minimums that are too punitive or out of proportion with other crimes in the system.

Nygaard’s issues with mandatory minimums were more unequivocal. He spoke from personal experience about how it chafed to have to apply mandatory minimums in many cases. Nygaard was similarly unequivocal in his views on overcriminalization, affirming plainly that it is a serious problem. While Hinojosa said that he believes there is room to improve the federal criminal system, he stopped short of deeming the problem to be one of overcriminalization, per se.

Among questions fielded by the judges were ones about tangible reform proposals for issues with our criminal justice system. To learn more about how you can get involved and submit your ideas, please visit the Charles Koch Foundation’s Request for Proposals page.

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