On Feb. 13, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy made a rare public appearance at a forum hosted by the nonprofit City Club Missoula. Citing judicial ethics, he stayed mum on the wolf debate and medical marijuana, contentious issues he's recently presided over. He did, however, voice concerns about the country's criminal justice system.
"I think that we have become accustomed to simply locking people upthat that's the answer, at great, great cost," Molloy said.
Just look at the numbers, he said. There are roughly 7.2 million people in state and federal custody; 2.3 million of them are behind bars. "Those numbers are larger than in any nation in the history of the world. We have more people locked up in this country than in China, than the gulags that existed in the Soviet Union."
When imposing sentences, Molloy said he can't help but think about the more than $6 billion annually it costs to incarcerate federal inmates. He called upon lawmakers to disentangle themselves from the "get tough on crime" pitch used to woo voters. Only then, he said, will elected officials be able to methodically examine the American penal system's social and fiscal costs. "How the justice system works should not be a political question," he said.
That discussion is more complex today then when Molloy became a federal judge in 1996. Drug crimes are more prevalent now. The internet, too, raises new questions about justice. "Perhaps the most disturbing trend with regard to the internet is the incidence of child pornography," Molloy said.
In 2003, Congress passed the PROTECT Act, which implemented a minimum five-year sentence for receiving child pornography. Such Legislation illustrates the challenges that come with top-down sentencing mandates, Molly said. "When you're on the bench and you're confronted with an 18- or 19-year-old young man who was in Boy Scouts, Eagle Scouts, the valedictorian of his class...that is a person who is completely different from the father who is making videos and putting them on the internet of having sexual intercourse with his daughter."
The issue of sentencing guidelines is again up for debate, as last week Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, of Wisconsin, renewed congressional calls to streamline sentencing guidelines.
"We should have a reasoned discussion about what the goals of the criminal justice system are," Molloy said.