The Incoherence of 10-20-Life

Post Date: June 6, 2013

Defenders of mandatory minimums – there aren’t many – argue that the crimes to which mandatory minimums apply are so inherently bad that no underlying facts could possibly justify a sentence below the statutorily defined floor.

To those dwindling few defenders, for sentencing purposes, the crime itself, and not any facts about how or why the crime was committed, etc., is the only relevant fact. Do the crime, get the time, facts be damned.

As I’ve been pointing out here lately, Florida’s “10-20-Life” law, which requires a mandatory minimum sentence for certain felonies committed with a gun, has yielded significant unintended consequences, most notably chilling the fundamental right of self-defense and leaving Floridians vulnerable to criminals. It’s also, of course, been used to punish law-abiding citizens who have chosen to defend themselves, an outcomenever intended by the law’s sponsors.

But beyond being a dumb law that hasn’t worked, 10-20-Life is also conceptually incoherent. The law requires a mandatory minimum sentence, but only if a gun is used in the commission of a felony. In other words, in 10-20-Life cases no underlying fact about the crime is relevant to sentencing, but the law will apply only in cases where a certain fact holds.

It’s incoherent because the law has (at least) two contradictory premises. The first is that the underlying facts of a crime should have no impact on sentencing. The second is that an underlying fact of the crime should have a total and complete impact on sentencing. These two premises are mutually exclusive; both cannot be true simultaneously.

Here, the second premise undermines the first. If it’s true that the underlying facts of a case should have no impact on sentencing, then it’s logically impossible that an underlying fact should have total and complete impact on sentencing. Of course, a defender of the law might argue that the presence of a gun in the commission of a crime is a fact of such astounding importance that it trumps all other facts. It alone should be considered because it alone is fundamentally different from all other facts. (As a resident of Gainesville, I’m immediately reminded that serial killer Danny Rolling did not self-identify as a “maniac with a gun,” but I digress.)

That argument, if true, would at least make the law coherent (it wouldn’tjustify the law). But to make that argument work you have to supply some kind of independent reason for why the presence of a gun in the commission of a crime should be considered in sentencing, but no other facts should. In other words, you have to offer some extrinsic reason whythat fact is fundamentally different from all the other potentially relevant facts.

For instance, to salvage the coherence of the law, a defender must articulate why the presence of a gun is relevant, but a defendant’s self-defense claim is not. Or why the presence of a gun is relevant, but how it was used (e.g., in a drunken fight, or in an armed robbery of a convenience store by a career criminal) is not. 

Either the facts of a case should matter in sentencing, or they shouldn’t. 10-20-Life tries to have it both ways, and the result is incoherent, cocktail napkin public policy, full of chest thumping bravado but devoid of thought.

~ Greg Newburn
Florida Project Director

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