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First take/Hammonds

While the sit-in crew at the Malheur refuge near Burns has been accomplishing little but generating a rich vein of humor, the underlying case of the Hammonds is another matter, and shouldn’t be forgotten in the barely-associated video-friendly events of Harney County.

Scan back through the history of the Hammonds and the Bureau of Land Management, with which they have dealt for decades as land users (for ranching and related purposes), and mostly you see a fairly ordinary run of debates and disputes. They are far from the only people with disagreements over the management of BLM lands and private use of them, and differed mainly in their setting of fires on those lands – to block invasive plant species say the Hammonds, or to cover up for deer poaching say the feds.

Two other things make this case unusual and a cause for wider concern.

One is the use of mandatory minimum sentences, which put a five-year floor on prison time for the Hammonds. The Oregon federal judge who presided over the case and then sentenced them ordered less time, saying five years “shocked the conscience” for the offenses involved; the 9th Circuit didn’t particularly argue with that, but said the law is the law and five years is the minimum. This is a good case example of why mandatory minimums are bad policy.

The second – which was what led to the first – is the use of harsh terrorism laws in the Hammonds’ case. Those laws, many not well thought through and passed in a panic after 9-11, have been used since in many cases far from their original intent, and whatever the level of the Hammonds’ guilt in fire-setting, they certainly are no terrorists.

These cases ought to a basis for revisiting some of these laws. And the Oregonian probably is right too in calling on President Obama to reduce the Hammonds’ sentences to something more in line with what they actually did. – rs

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