The government convinced a jury that Thomas Coughlin took money from Wal*Mart, amounting to a fraction of his agreed salary. Coughlin was sentenced among other things to 27 months home confinement.

Coughlin’s sentence was reversed by the 8th Circuit. The 8th Circuit decided that federal prisons can manage serious heart disease just fine, and that putting Coughlin on 2.5 years of home confinement was an abuse of discretion.

I spent 7 weeks in Sebastian County jail earlier this year. While I was there one inmate in this grossly overcrowded lockup had his jaw broken by someone who erroneously concluded that he was a snitch. Are overcrowded federal prisons really that much better managed than state lockups?

How long would it take to get help when assaulted? I kicked a metal door as hard as I could and screamed as loud as I could for about 15 minutes (time keeping devices are prohibited) to get help for an inmate in another cell. This is not likely to be possible when you are one of 4 inmates in a 2 man cell, a common practice before the new wing opened at the Sebastian County jail. Since I was in a one man cell (mostly because of my status as an attorney) I did not face the threat of assault.

Administration of drugs and medical services by the jail was sometimes creditable but sometimes almost comical. The best advice? Don’t get sick and don’t need drugs while you are incarcerated.

Mike Nifong gained national press by trying to deprive several white athletes of their liberty, money, civil rights, and reputation, with false testimony and evidence. His apparent motive? He needed to be elected one more time to secure a lucrative pension. He was sentenced to one day in jail.

Back to Coughlin’s case, consider this question. Why didn’t the jury find the facts essential to the sentence? In order to keep juries from finding the facts essential to a sentence, federal courts declare that the guidelines are advisory only, and thus do not violate the right to jury trial.

When they don’t like a sentence, the courts make the guidelines mandatory, for all practical purposes. Thus the “voluntary” nature of the sentencing guidelines is made of no effect. Defendants in federal court get the worst of both worlds; on the one hand they are denied protection against judge found facts, and on the other they are effectively denied what little mercy a federal judge might deem proper for a particular defendant.

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