Should somebody who commits perjury and obstruction of justice serve absolutely no prison time at all — not even one day?
The Bush Administration often has a different view, reports the L.A. Times:
[R]ecords show that the Justice Department under the Bush administration frequently has sought sentences that are as long, or longer, in cases similar to Libby’s. Three-fourths of the 198 defendants sentenced in federal court last year for obstruction of justice — one of four crimes Libby was found guilty of in March — got some prison time. According to federal data, the average sentence defendants received for that charge alone was 70 months.
It’s misleading to compare Libby’s sentence to that of all other defendants who committed the same crime. In the criminal justice system, several factors are used to determine the appropriate sentence, and among the most critical factors is the defendant’s criminal record (or lack thereof). By all accounts, Scooter Libby’s criminal record before this trial was spotless. So the relevant question is not what the average sentence is, but what the average sentence is for someone with no criminal record.
But it appears that, in at least one case found by The Times, the Bush Administration did not consider a spotless criminal record to be a “get out of prison free” card [UPDATE: Actually, The Times gets the facts wrong. See UPDATE below, and thanks to Stu707]:
Just last week, the Supreme Court upheld a 33-month prison sentence for a decorated Army veteran who was convicted of lying to a federal agent about buying a machine gun. The veteran had a record of public service — fighting in Vietnam and the Gulf War — and no criminal record. But Justice Department lawyers argued his prison term should stand because it fit within the federal sentencing guidelines.
[UPDATE: Actually, this defendant did indeed have a criminal record. It just didn’t count for purposes of the Sentencing Guidelines. See this post for further details.]
Libby’s sentence fit within the guidelines as well. And, ironically, the Bush Administration has been pushing legislation that, according to a speech given by AG Gonzales, would “restore the binding nature of the sentencing guidelines so that the bottom of the recommended sentencing range would be a minimum for judges, not merely a suggestion.”
Yet Bush commuted Libby’s sentence before he had served even a single day. Like so many other aspects of this commutation, this was unusual, as Presidents typically commute sentences after the prisoner has served most of it:
Sentencing experts said Bush’s action appeared to be without recent precedent. They could not recall another case in which someone sentenced to prison had received a presidential commutation without having served any part of that sentence. Presidents have customarily commuted sentences only when someone has served substantial time.
“We can’t find any cases, certainly in the last half century, where the president commuted a sentence before it had even started to be served,” said Margaret Colgate Love, a former pardon attorney at the Justice Department. “This is really, really unusual.”
By commuting Libby’s sentence before he started serving it, Bush has trivialized the crimes of perjury and obstruction of justice. If Bush thought Libby’s sentence was too harsh, he could have allowed Libby to serve what he believed to be an appropriate amount of time — and commuted the sentence then. But apparently, even one day in custody was too much for Bush’s pal.
Keep in mind that Scooter Libby would undoubtedly have served his time at a minimum security facility. I have visited the federal minimum security prison at Lompoc, California, and while it’s not a “country club,” it’s not what most people think of when they think of “prison,” either. Most of the prison is outside. There are no walls or fences; you could simply walk out of prison if you wished. (Prisoners don’t, typically, because the consequences of getting caught include a transfer to the maximum security facility.) Inmates play softball, milk cows, and sleep in dormitory-style accomodations. I’m not saying it looks like a fun life, because it doesn’t. But it’s not 23 hours a day locked in a jail cell with someone named Bubba.
In California, misdemeanor defendants face mandatory jail time for repeat offenses of driving on a suspended license — one of the lowest-level crimes on the books. And they go to L.A. County Jail — a far less pleasant place than minimum security federal prison.
Paris Hilton went to jail. Scooter Libby couldn’t serve even one day?