As Congress considered criminal justice reform legislation last week, a Kentucky judge was flaunting the kind of power that prompted legislators to institute mandatory minimums in the first place.
Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Olu Stevens made headlines after he dismissed a jury for a drug trial because it lacked diversity — against the objections of both the prosecution and defense. This was the second time Stevens, who is African-American, threw out a jury for lacking a sufficient number of minorities.
Last November, the Louisville-based judge got a whole new set of jurors for a theft trial after the previously-selected panel didn’t have any black participants. Stevens called it “troublesome” because the defendant happened to be black, which was enough of a reason to pick jurors based on the color of their skin.
The Kentucky Supreme Court is looking into the incident, investigating whether the judge has the authority to dismiss a jury for not being diverse enough. If the state court rules in favor of Stevens, that could give activist judges a disturbing precedent for arbitrary court rule.
But Stevens — who’s earned the nickname “Judge Selfie” for his photo-crazed social media presence — made a decision earlier this year that’s even worse than dismissing a jury for insufficient diversity, and directly relates to the need for mandatory minimum sentences. (RELATED: Criminal Justice Reform Is Bipartisanship At Its Worst)
Back in February, Stevens sentenced an African-American man convicted of participating in an armed home invasion to probation. Some of the reasoning behind the decision: One of the victims expressed fear around black males as a result of the traumatic experience. That victim was the five-year-old daughter of the family that was robbed at gun point.
This fear was mentioned in the family’s testimony to the court on how the home invasion continues to affect their lives. The then-three-year-old was watching cartoons when two men broke into her home with guns and terrorized her and her parents. The mother, Jordan Gray, wrote in a court testimony that the experience had made the daughter live “in constant fear of black men.”
“Whenever we are running errands, if we come across a black male, she holds me tight and begs me to leave,” Gray testified.
The judge was so incensed by the young child’s fear caused by the intense trauma, he rebuked the whole family for their prejudice. “I am offended… I am deeply offended that they would be victimized by an individual and express some kind of fear of all black men,” he said in his sentencing decision. (RELATED: Do Racial Slurs Justify Murder?)
He then gave the assailant, Gregory Wallace, five years of probation. Wallace was convicted of second-degree burglary, a Class C felony in Kentucky which often carries a sentence of five to ten years in jail. His accomplice, who was out on parole when the Gray family was robbed, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Stevens doubled down on his decision when he received backlash for the judgment and implied that the parents were racist. Legal experts interviewed by local media outlets said Stevens’s comments were unethical. While the prosecuting attorney for the case said that the sentence was outrageous because Wallace “put a gun in that little girl’s father’s face.”
That father, Tommy Gray, agreed with the prosecutor.
“If holding a little girl at gunpoint gets you probation, then our system is flawed.”
But Stevens did receive praise from some corners for his ruling.
“Racism is a repugnant disease that will not be cured until we have more people like Olu Stevens,” Aubrey Williams, a former head of Louisville’s NAACP chapter, told The (Louisville) Courier-Journal in response to the kerfuffle. Furthermore, Williams described the judge as a “breath of fresh air for the bench, for us as a people, and for the community in general.”
According to The Courier-Journal, several lawyers who’ve found themselves in Olu Stevens’s court have described him as a sanctimonious blowhard who has no tolerance for being told he’s wrong. Stevens even demanded when he was president of the local bar association that the organization become more “diverse.” He also has a record of leniency on convicts who have come before him, and several lawyers even say he makes decisions based on personal relationships.
Now imagine this judge deciding how much time drug dealers and other “non-violent” offenders should face if America did away with mandatory minimums. The supporters of extensive criminal justice reform want to banish mandated sentences for all non-violent offenders and give the judges the power to rule on a case-by-case basis.
If a judge held the clear bias of Olu Stevens, who has a record going light on violent offenders, obvious threats to society will be given slaps on the wrists and justice won’t be served.
In case you think Stevens is an extreme outlier and the vast majority of judges are actually objective arbiters of the law, here’s another recent example of judicial leniency.
The man who killed a New York City police officer last week was able to stay on the street due to a judge sentencing the criminal to rehab instead of jail time. The killer, Tyrone Howard, was convicted of dealing drugs, but Judge Edward McLaughlin was convinced it was a matter of addiction rather than criminality — even though the future cop-killer had been pushing poison most of his life and was considered a suspect in a 2009 shooting.
McLaughlin defended his decision by saying, “I don’t get a crystal ball when I get a robe.”
He’s right on that point.
That’s why it’s imperative to maintain mandatory minimums, even for non-violent offenders. Judges can have loopy ideas and power trips. Their decisions can be impaired by defendants’ sob stories and a desire to stand up for the latest social justice trend. Many times judges can overlook the good of the community in favor of the good of the moment.
Mandatory minimums check the potentially destructive consequences of a biased judgement by setting a clear standard on what punishment fits a crime. Rather than leaving it up to one man or one woman, it puts that all-important power in the hands of the people and ensures their interests are served.
The fact that one man has become so power-mad and racially-biased, he’s willing to dismiss an entire jury based on the color of their skin should serve as a serious wake-up call.