Over the last two weeks, Judge Brian Hill has been severely castigated over the sentencing in the Duanying Chen case. I believe this criticism to be unfair, and I very much disagree with the two criticisms most frequently voiced in these complaints: 1) that Chen got off with a “slap on the wrist,” and 2) that we need mandatory sentencing to “fix” the problem highlighted by placing Chen on probation instead of sending him to prison. Chen pled guilty and was convicted of assaulting his domestic partner and of torturing her pet Doberman pinscher to the point where the injuries inflicted led to the animal’s euthanization. The probationary sentence imposed on Chen was not a “slap on the wrist”; it carries significant lifelong consequences, including the possibility of a future prison sentence if he does not abide by the terms of the sentence while on probation. And, mandatory sentencing does nothing to improve the quality of justice we receive from our courts. Let me explain.
When we go to our courts, we want our judges to listen to us without having made up their minds about the outcome of the proceeding ahead of time, and we want the outcome to be determined only by what we present in court (or what is presented on our behalf) and not by what others outside of the courtroom may call upon the judge to do. We want our judges to be fair and independent. Judge Brian Hill is such a judge. The court’s sentencing decision in Chen’s case took into account all of the circumstances of the offense as presented by the prosecutor, the Probation Department, the testimony of two police officers and a treating veterinary doctor, as well as opinions expressed in letters from the public presented to the court by the prosecutor. The court also took into account Chen’s words to the court and Chen’s life and circumstances before making a decision uninfluenced by anything other than the court’s own independent evaluation of the offense and the offender. This is exactly what we would want a court to do if you, I, or a loved one were before a court for sentencing.
Chen did not “get off” with a “slap on the wrist.” He was convicted of committing four felony offenses, and when sentenced, he was immediately sent to jail for a year without the possibility of being granted an alternative sentence. He was also placed on supervised probation for five years, and required to pay over $24,000 in restitution. Upon being arrested, he was jailed and put in the public spotlight, bringing shame and worldwide condemnation to himself and his family. At the age of 19, his life and his future were undone by his thoughtless and cruel acts. These are very real and very painful consequences associated with simply being charged with a crime and being brought to court.
Now having been convicted of felony criminal offenses, in addition to these other very significant consequences, Chen has a felony record that will follow him for the rest of his life; one that will be accessible to anyone with a computer and a Google search, or anyone coming to the Superior Court and asking to see the public court file. These criminal convictions will carry consequences that will affect Chen’s ability to remain in this country, to pursue employment, and to become accredited and receive professional licenses.
In his statement to the court during his sentencing hearing, Chen acknowledged his actions, characterizing them as “unforgivable” and expressing remorse for those actions. Moreover, placing Chen on probation does not end the matter; by accepting probation, Chen has told the court he will accept a future prison sentence if he violates the terms of his probation. While on probation, he will be closely supervised by the probation department and will have the chance to remake himself by more completely understanding what he did, how he came to commit this heinous crime, and learning what he has to do to overcome and learn from this experience. If he does not do so, the Probation Officer will report Chen’s intransigence to the court, and the Court will undoubtedly take appropriate action.
“Mandatory” sentencing will not improve our sentencing process nor lead to better outcomes. Indeed, over the past three years we’ve seen our voters undo some of the more Draconian results of mandatory sentences.
Chen’s sentencing was not an example of the justice system breaking down. Chen was convicted of several felony offenses with their attendant direct and collateral consequences. After thoughtful analysis, Judge Hill imposed a sentence within the limits set by law guided by his independent judgment. Each of us has the same freedom to exercise our independent judgment when we reflect upon the case, and each will no doubt have an individual perspective. Indeed, it would not surprise me if persons reading this disagree with the perspective presented, perhaps even vehemently. But, would we want to limit our freedom to reflect and comment on the sentence imposed by Judge Hill? I think not, yet this is what mandatory sentencing does; it limits the ability to act other than in a very limited and narrow manner. If you, I, or a loved one were before a court for sentencing, mandatory sentencing would eliminate a judge’s ability to take into account our individual circumstances before imposing sentence. I very much doubt we would want to tie a judge’s hands in this way if you, I, or a loved one were before the court. One size doesn’t fit all, in any aspect of our lives. It works no better in our justice system.
Simply enacting a law does not solve a problem. Having law books with thousands of pages does not change people’s conduct. A person’s conduct is shaped by information and by educating him or her about the consequences of that conduct. I agree with the calls we have heard to inform and educate the public. Davey does not need a new law; rather Davey’s legacy should be to provide the public with increased education and information about our obligation to act as guardians and protectors of all forms of life. This is exactly the sort of education Chen will be receiving while he is on supervised probation.
Raimundo Montes De Oca is Public Defender for Santa Barbara County; J. Jeff Chambliss, Giovanni Giordani, and Robert Ikola are Chief Trial Deputy for Santa Barbara, Lompoc, and Santa Maria, respectively, for the Public Defender office.