#DevilsAdvocate Being A Judge Ain’t Easy

 |  October 10, 2011


Recently I have been doing a lot of sh*tting on the criminal justice system.  That being said the New York Times did an interesting profile on Judge Denny Chin.  I highly recommend that you check out the whole article, but below is an example of how Judges occasionally make and exception and take an individual’s personal situation into consideration.

ON Feb. 2, 2004, Marlo Kidd awaited sentencing before Judge Denny Chin of Federal District Court in Manhattan. She had pleaded guilty to acting as a lookout for two masked gunmen who had robbed a bank in Yonkers, and under federal sentencing guidelines, she faced a prison term of up to six years.

Her lawyer, though, was asking the judge to sentence her only to home confinement, because she was raising five children who ranged in age from 5 to 13, and also caring for her 14-year-old sister, as their own mother had been a crack-cocaine addict. He had said that sending Ms. Kidd to prison would almost certainly result in her children being placed in foster care, destroying what was left of the family.

His arguments gave Judge Chin pause. Ms. Kidd had provided him with copies of the children’s report cards, which showed them receiving B’s and B-pluses, even a smattering of A’s, and very few absences from school.

“The report cards had an impact on me,” Judge Chin recalled in a recent interview. “She was getting them out to school every day, and they were holding their own. I was impressed by this.” Ms. Kidd, who had also apologized for her crime in a letter to the judge, was “a decent mother,” he concluded. Moreover, one of his law clerks had shown him a news report on the terrible conditions in foster homes and facilities for children in New Jersey, where the children would most likely be sent.

But the robbery had been violent, with one robber killed in a police shootout. And the judge was seldom persuaded to grant leniency because of family circumstances – it was, after all, the defendants’ crimes, not the sentence, that caused hardships for families.

In the end, he decided that Ms. Kidd had to go to prison, but he imposed only a 30-month sentence. “I cared very much about the future of the children,” Judge Chin recalled, “but I was willing to take the risk that they would be sent to foster care, even with a shorter sentence.” His decision involved weighing conflicting concerns and interests, he said, “something we have to do all the time.”

I thought the difficulty of being a judge was summed up best here.

In a series of interviews conducted in person and through e-mail over the past year, Judge Chin discussed his most challenging sentencing decisions, cases that became essential parts of his education as a judge. The interviews were unusual; judges rarely agree to discuss cases, even closed ones, like these, outside court. The exchanges provided a revealing look at how one judge approached the task of sentencing, which he called “the hardest thing” about being on the bench.

“It is just not a natural or everyday thing to do,” Judge Chin explained, “to pass judgment on people, to send them to prison or not.”

“I mean, there is so much at stake,” he added, “and there are so many different considerations that come into play.”