Commentary

A pair of sex abuse cases from Elko County demonstrates what a sham mandatory minimum sentences are, especially in light of the continuing national debate over U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ decision to use these one-size-fits-all punishments more frequently.

In November 2009, a jury found 34-year-old Michelle Taylor guilty of lewdness with a minor under 14. Ms. Taylor, drunk at the time, had forced her friend’s 13-year-old son to touch her breast. She also told the boy to have sex with her. Nothing more happened, but it might have had the boy’s younger brother not walked in on them.

When she was formally charged Ms. Taylor was disgusted with herself, embarrassed, and deeply remorseful for what she’d put her victim through. She knew she had screwed up and was going to have to pay for her offense.

Unfortunately for Ms. Taylor, two years before she was charged, the Nevada legislature amended the state’s lewdness statute by imposing a mandatory life sentence for all offenders. So on April 15, 2010, Michelle Taylor’s judge’s only option was to sentence her to life in prison with parole eligibility in 10 years.

Ms. Taylor’s attorney pointed out that her sentence would have been lower if she had murdered the boy. Even the district attorney who prosecuted Ms. Taylor confessed he thought the legislature had been wrong. “I don’t agree that the Nevada … legislature should have made this a mandatory sentence,” he said. “I think it’s dumb. But they didn’t ask me about that.”

Sen. Bill Raggio, who helped draft the law, told a reporter who asked about Ms. Taylor’s sentence, “You know, you draft the law because of the more serious cases, and you can’t always foresee that something maybe far less could come under that condition.”

The late senator was right. The inability to foresee all future cases — and the unique circumstances and facts that might arise — is one of the biggest problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Proponents of the laws, usually prosecutors, argue that any shortcomings are outweighed by the law’s benefits, including their ability to ensure that everyone who commits the same crime gets the same punishment.

But is that true?

Nearly seven years after Michelle Taylor was sentenced to life in prison, Ristina Slack, 40, was charged with the exact same crime — in the exact same place, Elko County. The crime was the same, but the facts were not identical. (They never are.)

Ms. Taylor’s crime took place over a couple of hours while she was intoxicated. Ms. Slack seduced her young victim, who had previously dated her daughter, over a period of months. Whereas Ms. Taylor demanded but did not actually have sex with her young victim, Ms. Slack engaged in various sex acts with hers. She also made him take nude pictures of her.

There is an even bigger difference in these two cases. While Michelle Taylor was sentenced to life in prison, Ristina Slack was sentenced to less than 80 days in jail.

How did it happen? Ms. Slack’s prosecutor offered her a plea deal, which she accepted. The deal eliminated the mandatory minimum. Ms. Taylor was not offered a deal by her prosecutor, a fact that bothered her judge when he was forced to impose a life sentence.

Mandatory minimums, these cases show, are not really mandatory; they simply give prosecutors the power to decide who is going to get a lengthy sentence.

There was relatively little controversy over Ms. Slack’s 80-day jail sentence. Why? Perhaps it was because a psychological evaluation revealed that, if the state really wanted to prevent her from re-offending, treatment was going to be more effective than prison. Or maybe because Ms. Slack will never truly be free again; she was required to register as a sex offender for the rest of her life. Is this enough punishment? Reasonable people can disagree.

On the other hand, Michelle Taylor has already served eight years in state prison and has decades more to go, unless she is granted parole or clemency. She has completed various life skills and vocational programs while incarcerated and presents minimal to no risk to reoffend if released. So why should Nevada’s taxpayers be forced to spend nearly $1 million to keep her behind bars for the rest of her life?

Mandatory minimums do not always fit the crime, as these cases make clear. Both of these women committed terrible crimes, but neither deserved a life sentence.

Kevin Ring is president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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