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Sentencing sanity is lacking

Dana Deegan gave birth to a baby boy, wrapped him in a blanket and then placed him in a crib in her trailer home with her three older children, and didn't return for two weeks. When she came back, the infant was dead. She is serving a 10-year prison sentence for second-degree murder. Her case is not only a tragedy; it's a symptom of a much bigger problem that is unnecessarily clogging our federal prisons due to harsh mandatory minimum sentences, at great cost to taxpayers.

Deegan, who was 25 when she abandoned her newborn on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, was prosecuted in federal court in 2007 because federal prosecutors have jurisdiction for all major crimes in Indian Country, as reservations are collectively called. Normally, assaults, rapes, most drug cases and murders are prosecuted in state courts. If Deegan had been prosecuted in state court, she almost certainly would have received a much lighter sentence. Similar recent cases of "neonaticide" before North Dakota state courts resulted in sentences of probation in one case, and two years in prison in another.

That glaring sentencing disparity was highlighted this week in a conference at the University of North Dakota School of Law, where Judge Myron Bright of the Eighth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals spoke. Bright, who is seated in Fargo, has long been a voice, on and off the bench, calling for an end to harsh mandatory minimum sentences in federal court. He was a dissenting vote in an appellate panel that upheld Deegan's sentence in 2010, and is advocating a commutation of her sentence, set to end in 2017.

As Bright repeatedly has pointed out -- often in cases involving nonviolent, low-level drug peddlers -- federal mandatory sentences have tied judges' hands and led to punishment disparities that erode public confidence in the criminal justice system. Overly long sentences are filling prisons, at staggering cost to federal taxpayers, adding up to billions of dollars.

The problem dates back to 1987, when Congress passed mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in a get-tough-on-crime stance. Prison populations quickly swelled as cases that once would have drawn probation instead resulted in incarceration. In 1984, about 48 percent of federal defendants received a purely probationary sentence. By 2002, only 9.1 percent of federal defendants received probation. Average prison sentences jumped from 24 months in 1984 to almost 67 months in 1992.

Nonviolent offenders now account for more than 60 percent of the prison and jail populations in this country, according to a 2010 study, with a recent tally of corrections spending totaling a whopping $75 billion a year. As members of Congress work to cut federal spending, they should scrap the unduly harsh federal mandatory minimum sentence requirements, and give judges more discretion to make the sentence match the crime. We all pay the price of undeservedly long sentences of the kind Deegan is serving. It is unjust and unsustainable.

The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's Editorial Board formed this opinion.