If judges knew the future and could tell for sure which convicts would learn from past mistakes and which would repeat them, they’d all have error-free careers and then live off their winnings from the sportsbook.
Instead, we ask them not to keep anyone in prison who doesn’t have to be there, but also to keep us safe from those who really are dangerous. Done and done, right?
That their work is difficult, though, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be held accountable for serious mistakes.
Leavenworth County Judge Michael Gibbens made one such error in judgment and understanding last December, when he reduced the sentence of a 67-year-old man who knowingly solicited sex from a 13-year-old on Facebook.
Gibbens said that man’s 13- and 14-year-old victims “were more an aggressor.” He also said that “Normally, I would think that the harm that would be done by this kind of conduct would be very, very substantial. I’m not convinced that that is so in this case.” With so much insight into the inner lives of young abuse victims, maybe he really is all-knowing.
Kansas law does allow sentences to be reduced when “the victim was an aggressor or participant in the criminal conduct.” We wrote then that Gibbens time on the bench should also be reduced — and that he should resign.
That didn’t happen. After The Star reported on that case, however, the Kansas Legislature passed a new law to stop judges from reducing sentences for sex offenses against children on the basis that children could be “aggressors.”
Now we’ve seen further evidence that Gibbens, who was appointed to the bench by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, has been awfully lenient in his sentencing, this time with deadly results.
More than a year ago, one of the suspects in last weekend’s mass shooting at the Tequila KC Bar was before Gibbens, on a case for which the prosecutor said he should spend 10 years behind bars. Instead, Gibbens gave him probation, and the rest of the story was written in the blood that had to be hosed off the sidewalk in Kansas City, Kansas.
That suspect, 29-year-old Hugo Villanueva-Morales, who is still at large, has been charged with four counts of murder in last weekend’s bar shooting.
Villanueva-Morales was serving time in the Lansing Correctional Facility for a 2011 aggravated robbery in Wyandotte County when he was found with synthetic marijuana during a strip search. He pleaded guilty to trafficking contraband.
The prosecutor in that case, County Attorney Todd Thompson, said in an interview that the state asked Gibbens to impose the standard sentence of 120 months, or 10 years, because they were aware of his violent history and “believe that if you’re in prison, you’re supposed to be there to reform, not to commit more crimes.”
According to a transcript, he told Gibbens in court that Villanueva-Morales, “knew the rules. He chose not to follow the rules.” He asked the judge to recognize “the risk...that the presence of illegal narcotics within the prisons poses to not only other inmates but also correctional officers.”
Instead, Gibbens gave Villanueva-Morales two years of probation because he’d “accepted responsibility” In court documents, under “reasons cited as basis for departure” from sentencing guidelines, it says, “Defendant doing well on parole as evidenced by letter from supervising authority; the amount of contraband (synthetic marijuana) was small and was indicative of personal usage.”
Other cases in which Gibbens ignored sentencing guidelines include one in July of 2018, when, according to a report from the Associated Press, he gave another man probation for the battery of a law enforcement officer who’d suffered a concussion after he pushed her down a flight of stairs. The sentencing guidelines recommend between 12 and 24 months.
And in November of last year, he gave a man probation who had brought drugs into Lansing. Sentencing guidelines called for four years, and prosecutors and defense had agreed on a reduced sentence of two years. In that case, Gibbens cited the growing prison population as one reason he gave the man no jail time at all.
That’s a real issue, and one the public doesn’t want to hear about. Thompson, the prosecutor in the Villanueva-Morales case, said that the single most helpful way to minimize recidivism and so ease overcrowding with a minimum of risk would be to provide more treatment for mental illness and addictions.
Meanwhile, though, a judge who minimizes blame for perpetrators and apportions blame to victims is one whose judgment is worrisome. It’s unfortunate that he won’t be on the ballot again until 2022.