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Mandatory sentences opposed by Breyer

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BOSTON (AP) — Mandatory minimum sentences passed by Congress are "bad policy" because they are unfair in some cases, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Sunday.

Breyer, who was a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission in the 1980s, said there must be flexibility in sentencing to make room for exceptional cases.

In a speech to about 550 people at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, Breyer said Congress had passed statutes with "no room for flexibility on the downside."

"That is not a helpful thing to do," he said. "It's not going to advance the cause of law enforcement in my opinion, and it's going to set back the cause of fairness in sentencing."

Last month, Justice Anthony Kennedy told the annual meeting of the American Bar Association he favored scrapping the practice of setting mandatory minimum sentences for some federal crimes, saying that the sentences were sometimes unjust.

Breyer said that Kennedy, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and "others on our court" shared his views on mandatory minimums.

Federal sentencing guidelines provide judges a range of possible punishments for most crimes. The system also allows judges to depart from the guidelines, imposing either tougher or more lenient sentences in special cases.

During the talk, which was moderated by National Public Radio's Nina Totenberg, Breyer also talked about the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision that essentially called the deadlocked presidential election for George W. Bush.

"I was very disappointed and I'm often disappointed," he said, pointing out that he was among the dissenters in a 5-4 decision.