Prison for Thee, But Not For Me: 10-20-Life Offers No Uniformity in Sentencing

Post Date: May 27, 2014

Proponents of 10-20-Life argue that the mandatory minimum gun sentencing law creates “uniformity” in sentencing. The idea is that similar crimes merit similar punishments, an outcome they claim is impossible to achieve with judicial discretion, but guaranteed with mandatory minimums. 

One wonders, then, how those proponents square their theory with this story. Here are the (edited) facts of the case: 

A former Hillsborough County sheriff’s detective  pulled a handgun during a road rage incident. Thomas Pettis was accused of pulling a gun on a school teacher during a fracas after a crash along Interstate 4. The incident started after the rear-end crash on I-4 in February. When Pettis and Rees pulled off to the side of the road, words were exchanged and things got so heated that the two wound up on the ground fighting. Hillsborough County State Attorney Mark Ober said there’s no question Pettis pulled his gun and pointed it at Rees, then showed his badge as he got up from the ground and pointed it at Rees for one second. After that, Ober said Pettis then pointed his gun once again aiming it in a diagonal direction to the ground and aiming at no one.

Based on those facts, Mr. Pettis committed aggravated assault with a firearm. And under 10-20-Life, the only appropriate sentence for that crime is three years in prison. Any sentence shorter than three years is by definition inappropriate, soft on crime, and the rest. So, given that “uniformity” in sentencing is one of the bedrock arguments in favor of 10-20-Life and other mandatory minimum laws, one would expect that Pettis received a sentence of three years in prison, right? I mean, that’s the whole point of the law, right??

Wrong!

Of course that’s wrong.

Because, despite the rhetoric of its supporters, 10-20-Life doesn’t offer any uniformity in sentencing. That’s because a “mandatory minimum” is only a “mandatory minimum” after a trial. The law imposes no “minimum” on prosecutors offering plea bargains; they can offer any sentence they want. As a result, “mandatory minimums” like 10-20-Life don’t provide a “floor” for every defendant who commits a particular crime. Rather, they transfer sentencing authority from judges to prosecutors, who decide what sentence to offer in exchange for a guilty plea. The result is exactly the same kind of sentencing disparity mandatory minimums were intended to prevent.

So, what happened to Pettis?

On Thursday, a judge ruled that Pettis, 55, was approved by the Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office for its misdemeanor intervention program. In return, the judge dismissed the case.

Contrast the outcome in Pettis’ case to the nauseating case of Jared Bretherick, who was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm after he pointed a gun at another driver who’d nearly run his family off the road. Please, read the entire account. But here’s  how the 5th DCA described some of the circumstances of Bretherick’s case: 

The victim here drove recklessly, nearly side-swiping the Brethericks’ vehicle. Then the victim slammed on the brakes and came to a complete stop directly in front of the Brethericks in the middle of a busy six-lane divided highway. The victim got out of his vehicle and walked back toward the Brethericks’ truck, then returned to his vehicle, folded the side mirrors in, and at one point, rolled back towards the Brethericks. The Defendant had a subjective fear of imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or his family.

Bretherick’s motion to dismiss the case is currently on appeal at the Florida Supreme Court. If his appeal is denied and Bretherick loses at trial, he will go to prison for three years. The judge will have no discretion over the sentence. 

Here we have two cases of aggravated assault with a firearm. In both cases, the defendant pointed a gun at another person. Thomas Pettis was approved for the “misdemeanor intervention program” and his case was dismissed. Jared Bretherick was not offered the same “misdemeanor intervention program,” and if he loses at trial a judge will be forced to sentence him to three years in prison. Same crime, almost identical behavior (if anything, Pettis’ case is much less sympathetic than Bretherick’s), but two wildly different outcomes.

So, tell me, advocates of 10-20-Life. Why is three years the only appropriate sentence for Jared Bretherick, but not for Thomas Pettis? Why should prosecutors have an unlimited range of sentencing options to offer a defendant who’s willing to plead guilty, but a judge should have only one to give a defendant who’s convicted at trial? 

In any event, the Pettis/Bretherick cases show conclusively that 10-20-Life does not provide the “uniformity in sentencing” that the law’s proponents claim it provides. Again, it merely transfers sentencing authority from judges to prosecutors, who use the law’s stiff penalties to coerce guilty pleas from defendants – who in turn often end up serving considerably less time than the “mandatory minimum” requires. The considerable leverage over defendants explains why prosecutors love mandatory minimums, of course, but it should also put to rest this false notion that mandatory minimums provide uniformity in sentencing.

6 Responses to “Prison for Thee, But Not For Me: 10-20-Life Offers No Uniformity in Sentencing”

  1. Sandra

    No person deserves life in prison absent murder or a very haneous crime. Guns are everywhere. This is the world we live in and YES guns are used in crimes. Again, absent intentional murder a person does not deserve LIFE. Especially under Florida’s law, the only state to mean LIFE not 15 years. Whoever thought of this law was not thinking…….COME ON…… I saw cases where people have committed murder and did not get life…ONLY IN FLORIDA.

    Reply
  2. zee meetze

    My son is in under this law and it is just not right. First time in and he got the ten years. Now they have almost killed him in what they call their hospital. We have six more years to go and I wonder if he will ever make it home.

    Reply
  3. Cheryl

    My son just had to take a plea for for 9.25 years because he was looking at 15! Someone with his same crime got 1 day! Many have not, many have gotten WAY less. He is a first time offender, non-drug, non-alcohol related, non-violent crime. It’s a shame that HIS best and only hope was 85% of 9.25 years! He’s 23. This has been a nightmare and whirlwind of emotion. The absolute worst part, there is NO hope of seeing the “real world” for 7 1/2 years. That’s a travesty and gross injustice.

    Reply
  4. Justina

    Because of this law the father of my son was sentenced to 20 years. He was just today sent to his processing camp. We are praying that this law gets changed in some way. It upsets me how many families have been effected by this law.

    Reply
  5. kimm

    My husband has served 13 years of a 20 yr sentence so far for discharging a gun while in a vehicle at the age of 17. No prior convection or record. In addition, he has 10 year parole and no gain time. Not a single person was harmed, we had at least 5 different public defenders , tried in two county at once (name spelled wrong, so technically it didn’t exist), jumbled case, mistakes everywhere even to my untrained eye….and yet he’s still in fighting to come home. The Laws in FL are a JOKE, I’ve seen people do heinous crimes and receive a tap on the wrist. I just don’t understand the logic!

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  6. Janice

    When I heard of this I was for it….. especially for rapist, pedophiles, menaces to society, murderers, violators against women, and robbers etc.. But non violence crimes like my brother’s is wrong. There are some offenders who go in and out or not spend 1day when their judgement should have been 10-20-life. I am praying this issue is resolved. As with me and my brother we have each other only. This sentencing literally killed our mother, right before my eyes and she who adopted both of us with no help from the fathers after the adoptions were finalized, they both left so our mom basically was A broken mother WHEN THIS HAPPENED to my brother. Fix this travesty of a law with open eyes. This too shall pass, but not before a BIG CHANGE, for non-violent offenders is looked at with sensibility and compassion.

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