By any measure, the five-year sentence given to Eastern Oregon rancher Dwight Hammond and his son Steven was excessive.
That’s probably the one point on which all sides of the case can agree.
Beyond that, opinions vary on what level of punishment would have been fair in a case that illustrates the shortcomings of a skewed legal system and a federal agency whose employees — at least one of them — use government resources to reveal their biases and criticize the Hammonds.
The case grew out of an ongoing dispute between the Hammonds and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Let’s back up a few years, to 2001, to be exact. That’s when the 139-acre blaze called the Hardie-Hammond Fire was set on the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area, according to court documents.
In 2006, the Krumbo Butte Fire was set, burning 1 acre of public land, according to court documents.
In each case, the Hammonds had leased the land to graze their cattle. Fire is an oft-used tool to clear land of weeds, juniper and other invasive plants, but the Hammonds had no permission to set fires on public land.
In 2012, the Hammonds were taken to court. After a two-week trial, Dwight Hammond was convicted of setting the first fire and sentenced to three months in prison. His son Steven was convicted of setting the second fire and sentenced to one year in prison. Both also received three years of supervised release.
The Pendleton jury acquitted the father and son of setting two other fires and the government dismissed those charges.
At the sentencing, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan opted for the lighter sentences, but the prosecutor appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which agreed with him that a mandatory sentence can’t be ignored.
Two weeks ago, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken resentenced the Hammonds to five years in prison.
Though legally correct, the sentence is patently unfair.
The Hammonds were charged with violating a federal law that carried with it a minimum sentence of five years in prison. The law is aimed at crimes in which terrorists or others destroy federal property through bomb blasts or arson.
Though exercising extraordinarily poor judgment in starting field burns on federal land without permission, the Hammonds are not terrorists.
Other federal laws that carry five-year minimum sentences address treason, child pornography, using a gun while committing a violent crime or importing drugs.
Burning 140 acres does not compare with any of those crimes.
That’s the danger when Congress decides to tell judges how to do their jobs. Judges must have latitude to use their judgment in deciding sentences that fit the crimes. That’s the whole point of having judges.
When he originally sentenced the Hammonds, Hogan described five years in prison as cruel and unusual and said such sentences would “shock the conscience.”
He was correct.
When people such as the Hammonds are caught in a net that was set for terrorists, justice is not well-served.
In hindsight, this case should have been settled before trial. It would have saved the public the enormous expense of a trial, appeal, resentencing and providing the Hammonds with room and board for five years at a federal prison.
And the Hammonds would now permanently be at home, where they belong.