President Obama has now commuted the federal prison sentences of more than 1,000 prisoners, mostly non-violent drug offenders. Most have served far more time in prison than if they committed the same crime today, because previous mandatory sentencing laws have been relaxed.
Which brings us to H.R. 5815 — Resource Management Practices Protection Act of 2016 — introduced by Oregon Rep. Greg Walden. The bill would amend the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which was passed following the Oklahoma City bombing and requires a minimum of five years in prison for anyone convicted of damaging federal property by fire or explosives.
The bill would exempt from prosecution anyone who sets a fire on his own property to prevent damage — such as a backfire — or if that person is using a generally accepted practice for managing vegetation on timber, grazing, or farm land and fire doesn’t result in death or serious bodily injury — even if that fire spreads to federally controlled land.
Which brings us to Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, two Oregon ranchers now serving mandatory five-year sentences because fires set on their own property escaped onto federal land, burning a grand total of 140 acres — one was a controlled burn and the other a backfire to protect their own property from a lightning sparked blaze.
Even if passed, the bill would not result in the freeing of the Hammonds but could protect others from such frivolous prosecution in the future.
The bill has cosponsors from Idaho, Washington, Arizona and Utah but none from Nevada.
When the Hammonds were first convicted veteran federal Judge Michael Hogan refused to impose the five-year mandatory minimum, saying that was “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”
The judge reasoned, “Out in the wilderness here, I don’t think that’s what the Congress intended. And in addition, it just would not be — would not meet any idea I have of justice, proportionality.” He gave the father three months in jail and the son a year and a day.
The U.S. attorney appealed and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, ordered the Hammonds must serve the remainder of that five-year sentence.
It was the resentencing of the Hammonds that prompted protesters to take over the buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for more than a month this past January. But the Hammonds made it clear at the time they had nothing to do with the protesters and peacefully turned themselves in to the authorities and have been jailed since.
The protesters included two of the Bunkerville Bundy brothers, Ammon and Ryan, already notorious for their standoff with federal agents in 2014 who were trying to confiscate their cattle.
A jury earlier this year refused to convict the Bundys and five other protesters for the refuge takeover, but the Bundys and others face charges next year over the Bunkerville incident.
Obama announced in 2014 that he would use commutations to right the wrong of overly harsh sentences that did not fit the crime.
White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler said at the time, “The president believes that one important purpose [of clemency] can be to help correct the effects of outdated and overly harsh sentences that Congress and the American people have since recognized are no longer in the best interests of justice.”
The Hammonds would appear to fit in that category.
A version of this editorial appeared this week in some of the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, Sparks Tribune and the Lincoln County Record.