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Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy urged a more compassionate approach to crime and punishment Saturday, calling for an end to mandatory minimum sentences. During his keynote speech at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in San Francisco, Kennedy took the striking position that federal criminal laws are too punitive, asking for an overhaul of federal sentencing guidelines and a more humanitarian approach to housing prisoners. “This is your justice system. They’re your prisons. And there’s something seriously wrong with them,” Kennedy told hundreds of lawyers gathered at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. Kennedy pointed out that a vastly higher percentage of blacks are behind bars than other races. He also pointed out that the United States incarcerates people at seven times the rate of Western European nations. He gave the example of an 18-year-old sentenced to a minimum of five years in prison for possessing several grams of crack cocaine. “Ladies and gentlemen, I submit to you that an 18-year-old doesn’t know how long five years is,” Kennedy told the crowd. “Every day in prison is much longer than any day you’ve ever spent.” Kennedy decried recent sentencing changes, which he said have shifted the authority to show mercy on a defendant from the judge to the prosecutor — “sometimes to an Assistant United States Attorney not much older than the defendant.” Kennedy also called on politicians to be unafraid to pardon some of the nation’s 2.1 million prisoners. California Gov. Gray Davis has earned a reputation for routinely overruling parole for convicted murderers. “The pardon power has been drained of its moral force. It should be reinvigorated,” Kennedy said. Kennedy framed his speech in terms of morality, arguing that prisoners should not be demeaned or degraded and calling on the ABA to help bring change. The call was answered Monday by the ABA’s new president, Dennis Archer, who said the organization would launch a critical examination of America’s criminal justice system from its high rates of incarceration and recidivism to the disproportionate imprisonment of minorities. Of particular concern, Archer said, were federal and state mandatory minimum guidelines. “It has been 10 years now. It is time to evaluate the results, especially when a justice brings it up,” said Archer. “This time next year, [at the annual convention] in Atlanta, we will have some recommendations.” During his speech, Kennedy did not touch on the recent Supreme Court term, during which he wrote the majority opinion that struck down a Texas law banning homosexual sodomy, triggering a vigorous national debate about privacy and gay rights. But in the second part of his address, he gave the audience a taste of the internationalist perspective that court commentators have noted ran through a number of the high court’s opinions this past term. Assuming a statesman’s posture, Kennedy argued against teaching students a world view based on relativism. Instead, he said, there are certain core values — “first principles” — that should be common among nations. Kennedy said there are far too many youths today who would stand by — in the name of tolerance for other cultures — while people suffer under oppressive or even genocidal regimes. “This is passivity and it’s indifference,” Kennedy said. “This is not tolerance. … This is callousness masquerading as tolerance. “If you don’t believe in universal truths, you can’t transmit your democracy to the next generation and you can’t submit it to the world,” Kennedy said. “�We hold these truths to be self-evident.’” Kennedy concluded by noting that a 115-year-old San Francisco case involving a Chinese national who wanted a permit to run a laundry gave rise to one of the most important equal protection cases ever written. Kennedy said it was a testament to the legal profession that a case involving a foreign national gave meaning to the equal protection rights of all Americans. Earlier, the ABA presented an award to Mohammed Odeh al-Rehaief, an Iraqi lawyer who reported the whereabouts of missing U.S. soldier Jessica Lynch to U.S. forces. He was given an honorary lifetime membership to the ABA.

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