This week, President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of Ceasar Cantu, a man who would have spent an extra three-and-a-half years rotting in jail because of a typo.
And no, that wasn’t a typo.
Cantu pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in 2006. Jackson Kiser was the judge in the case. Kiser said that due to Cantu’s clean record and other considerations he would like to hand down a lenient sentence.
Kiser was hamstrung by federal sentencing guidelines in drug cases. The best the judge could do was sentence Cantu to the bare minimum the guidelines allowed. In this case, fifteen years in the big house.
Yet the court documents misstated the minimum. The court report, according to the AP, “correctly listed Cantu’s level at 34 in one part, but incorrectly listed it at 36 in the portion that calculated a recommended sentence of up to nearly 22 years.”
The right low-end sentence for Cantu’s offense would have been 11-and-a-half years, or three-and-a-half years less than the 15-year sentence.
When Cantu finally discovered this and petitioned the court to lower his sentence, he was out of luck. The statute of limitations for appealing the court’s egregious typo was one year. No exception would be made in his case.
President Obama had other ideas. White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said the case ought to remind us of the “importance of clemency as a fail-safe mechanism” when courts refuse to right an obvious error.
In the process of granting this commutation, Obama asked the Department of Justice to bring more such egregious cases to his attention. More commutations would probably be welcome. He has issued only 10 in five years.
The case also calls the sentencing guidelines themselves into question. Sentencing guidelines may or may not be a good idea. A few widely publicized lenient sentences in recent rape cases, absent guidelines, have sparked outrage.
But the Cantu case shows how complicated and punitive federal guidelines have become. A bipartisan group of senators, including Vermont’s Patrick Leahy (D) and the very conservative Utah Republican Mike Lee, aims to change that.
Senators want to streamline the sentencing guidelines and make them less draconian, especially toward non-violent drug users. Expect to hear Ceasar Cantu’s name on the Senate floor in the near future.