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Making punishments fit crimes

Many Americans, sick of worrying about crime, want to lock away all criminals and lose the key. This simplistic approach to criminal justice has gained a strong foothold in recent years.

As a result, lawmakers have scrambled to enact minimum mandatory sentences and, in some states, three-strikes laws that turn court rooms into batting ranges - places where the public can swat away offenders for good. Judges, often bearing the brunt of the nation's anger over leniency, have become less and less relevant to the system.And that is wrong.

But, in the same breath, we add it is equally wrong to give judges overly broad discretion when it comes to sentencing criminals. A person in Utah ought to expect a relatively similar punishment whether he or she is tried in Salt Lake County or in Washington County. Judges and the Board of Pardons should be allowed to use discretion within specific guidelines, taking into account the circumstances of the crime and the conduct of the criminal.

Fortunately, the state's Sentencing Commission recently enacted such guidelines. That means justice ought to be a little more just in Utah than it has been - although the state has wisely chosen to reject most of the sentencing fads that have swept the nation.

While studies show a relationship between stiff sentences and a reduction in overall crime, the "lock 'em up" mentality has taken its toll on reason and sanity within the criminal justice system nationwide.

Anecdotes abound. In Mobile, Ala., for instance, a young woman unwittingly led an undercover narcotics officer to her boyfriend for a drug purchase. For this, she was given 10 years in prison with no chance for parole - the mandatory sentence for a drug-related crime in that state. But her boyfriend, the pusher, had valuable information about other drug dealers. He made a deal with authorities and, in exchange for this information, received a sentence of only 5 years.

Inequities like these are the norm. Invariably, minimum mandatory sentences and three-strikes laws punish the bit players and go easy on the big-time operators who have information to trade.

Utah recently did away with its minimum mandatory sentences for sex offenses. It has wisely resisted the three-strikes fad. Now the Sentencing Commission has removed recommended sentences for murder and installed a system that better reflects the amount of time people actually spend behind bars. But it also implemented statewide standards that will provide similar sentences for similar crimes, regardless of where they were committed.

All crimes are not equal, just as circumstances vary from case to case. Judges ought to be free to make punishments fit the crimes.