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Judges converse with students on drug law reform

By Staff | Feb 26, 2016

On Feb. 17, Justice Brent Benjamin, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan and Judge Viki Pauler formed a panel to discuss the nuances of judicial decision-making with Shepherd’s student body.

West Virginia ranks number one among states with the highest rates of death resulting from a drug overdose making legislative and judicial actions all the more salient for West Virginians. As the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, America’s judges and legislators are forced to strike a delicate balance between attempts to avail America of its overcrowded prisons or to alleviate drug trafficking.

Justice Benjamin, of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, offered insights into the origins and nature of law. Judgment and prosecution exists, he argued, to satisfy society’s calls for punishment appropriate to crimes committed, rehabilitation of criminals for the benefit of society and as a deterrent for would-be criminals.

Judge Pauler holds a unique position among other members of the panel. As a prosecutor turned judge, she has experience crafting cases against offenders and-as judge-attempting to make the most balanced decision given both sides of an argument.

Three-strikes laws mandate courts to punish criminals more severely if they have previous convictions in the 24 states where they are enforced. In debating their effectiveness, Pauler argued that they limit judicial discretion in choosing different punishments according to the details of specific cases. The three-strikes laws, Benjamin said, are a “reflection of society’s frustration,” with those repeat offenders thought beyond reform.

Judge Sullivan is known, in part, for his opposition to deferred prosecution agreements that frequently excuse corporations from punishment for a nominal fee. As a D.C. native who’s seen friends fall through the cracks in the system, Sullivan said he tries to look at the whole picture-considering the impact the individual has on society and how destructive a harsh punishment may be to the defendant’s family-before deciding on effective sentences.

Though the deferred prosecution agreements were intended to squelch prison overcrowding by offering criminals an interim during which they may turn their lives around and seek lesser punishments-Sullivan said those deals are rarely accessible to common criminals.

Regarding the nation’s drug epidemic-“Prisons,” Sullivan asserted, “are not the appropriate place for people who are sick.” He went on to discuss the overcrowding in prisons and need for effective means of rehabilitating, rather than just punishing, nonviolent offenders.

On the other hand, as Judge Pauler notes, rehabilitation is not a proper substitute for incarceration and some offenders must be imprisoned for the sake of general society.

As for what could be done to reduce recidivism among those being released from prison, Justice Benjamin noted the success of halfway houses in Texas that drastically reduced recidivism.

Halfway houses, he said, offer a place for the recently discharged to live while they learn the skills necessary to reintegrate into society. Noting that most recidivism occurs during the first four months following an individual’s discharge from prison, Justice Benjamin suggested that the halfway houses manage effective reintegration while alleviating the tax-burden of overcrowded prisons.

Striking the balance between punishment and empathy-driven attempts to rehabilitate entails many considerations. The key may lie in the characteristics of the accused and on a case-by-case basis-those details that cannot be accounted for by restrictive legislature but that rely on the sensibilities of judges. Some criminals may be beyond help, or perhaps the want of it, but in other cases as Judge Sullivan noted “Good people make bad decisions.”