Nearly three years after the fact, the truck driven by Rogel Aguilera-Mederos continues to leave wreckage in its wake. His 110-year sentence left both his life and mandatory minimum sentencing policies in tatters.
While a petition to change Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence has already garnered two million signatures online, the real dilemma is what should be done about the sentencing guidelines that put him in that position in the first place. Arguments for and against mandatory minimum sentencing requirements have been at the center of heated debates for decades.
It is time the Colorado legislature took another long, hard look at these policies and made some changes. Specifically, they must return discretion to judges.
The argument against such a course of action is straightforward: without mandates sentences become arbitrary and subject to the luck of the judicial draw. Sentences could vary wildly depending on whether a judge is defense friendly — like the one in the Rittenhouse case — or a “hanging judge” guided by corporeal notions of societal retribution.
At its very worst, judicial discretion opens the door to decisions based on personal bias and prejudice. Such discretion has driven racial inequities in sentencing as long as judges have presided over courtrooms.
Yet the solution to that problem has proved even more virulent. Legislative bodies stripping judicial discretion and imposing mandatory sentencing measures have seen devastating consequences. Creating sweeping guidelines to govern a system meant to review individual cases for unique facts and circumstances is a recipe for disaster.
For example, mandatory minimum sentences related to crack cocaine have led to unconscionable racial disparities and disproportionate incarceration of minorities for decades. It is the very poster child for systemic, institutionalized racial disparity. Yet despite its high-profile nature and some changes, the problem continues to persist today.
A better solution rests with better judicial selection, more rigorous and transparent judicial accountability and recourse against judges applying discretion for impermissible purposes. If courts can bar prosecutors from engaging in such conduct, someone should be able to bar the courts from doing the same.
A secondary argument for mandatory minimums is that they promote plea bargains and judicial efficiency. Effectively, the very possibility of facing draconian sentences allows prosecutors to push defendants toward accepting plea bargains. That in turn saves courts from resource-intensive trials.
The problem here is even more egregious. It effectively incentivizes prosecutors to drum up as many charges as possible and place a heavy hand on the scales of justice to save time and money.
Of course, that tipping comes at the cost of liberty, the presumption of innocence and the moral underpinnings of fairness, equity and due process. The importance to meting out justice of prosecutorial discretion in charging is secondary — and often equal to — judicial discretion.
That is exactly where much of the outrage in Aguilera-Mederos’ case emanates from: organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have accused Jefferson County District Attorney Alexis King (and her predecessor Pete Weir) of over-charging in the case. They believe potential penalties drove a breakdown in plea bargain penalties.
That seems overly simplistic. King’s office has all but joined the presiding judge to invite a reduction. Furthermore, King emphasized that several plea offers were rejected by Aguilera-Mederos, who subsequently took a chance before the jury knowing what could happen.
Now that it has, cries for a full pardon ring a bit hollow. Aguilera-Mederos is no Rene Lima-Marin; four people are dead in no small part because he did not choose to mitigate the danger presented by failing brakes. Found guilty by a jury, he should serve time in prison.
But 110 years?
That is more than a travesty. It is an injustice. It is an indicator of a broken system. It is a cry for urgent change.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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