It’s not very often that we get to look behind the bench and gain some insight into the men and women whose responsibility it is to dispense justice. Judge Denny Chin, the federal judge who sentenced Bernie Madoff to 150 years in prison, who President Obama appointed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit provides a unique look into the life of a judge.
Earlier this year Judge Chin discussed the Madoff sentencing in a New York Times article, Judge Explains 150-Year Sentence for Madoff, in the second installment, A Judge’s Education, a Sentence at a Time, he disputes the idea that the law – that judges’ are inhumane.
Having sentenced more than 1100 defendants in his sixteen years on the bench he talks about some of the most challenging sentencing decisions in his career. According to Judge Chin, sentencing is the “hardest thing” to do as a judge.
“It is just not a natural or everyday thing to do, to pass judgment on people, to send them to prison or not.”
While I have never asked the question of the judge’s with whom I am acquainted – I imagine they would all agree. There is much at stake at sentencing. Lives will be forever altered as a result of the judge’s sentencing decision. There are many factors to consider, human considerations to account for in determining a sentence that is sufficient but not greater than necessary to achieve the purposes of sentencing.
He noted that sentencing law recognized that individuals with different levels of culpability should be treated differently, and that some crimes were more evil than others. As always, he said, judges must also look at other factors, like a defendant’s history, background and motivation.
Outside observers may not appreciate the magnitude associated with making daily decisions and pronouncing judgment on the actions of others, decisions that very often could mean the difference between life and death.
It is easy, relatively speaking, to look at isolated moments of a person’s life – often; at the harm those actions caused others. It becomes complicated, however, when that life is put into perspective with the total life experience of the defendant. According to Judge Chin, “I think there is a lot of humanity in the law.”
It’s refreshing to see behind the bench, to catch a glimpse of the men and women who sit in judgment, and to know that, like the rest of us they strive to do the best they can with the circumstances before them. In the words of Judge Chin, “You do what you think is best for the defendant, for society, and you hope it works out.”
It’s not just the Bernie Madoff’s of the world, it is the “run of the mill” life caught up in crime – from the “white-collar” to the “blue-collar” and those on the extremes, judge’s in state and federal courts across the country are asked to “judge” their fellow man and it is comforting to know that they remain connected to humanity. It is comforting to know that they care…
When judge’s stop caring, there can be no justice.