BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) - Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein has spent his career reimagining how due process looks and feels. The process has won the 90-year-old jurist a reputation for considering the human condition where rigid sentencing guidelines fail.
"We judges don't know what's going on in the real world," Weinstein told Courthouse News, from his 14th story chambers in Brooklyn. "You're really dealing with human beings here, and that's a really difficult kind of problem."
Nominated as a federal judge in 1967, Weinstein decided early on to investigate school desegregation cases both on and off the bench.
"I used to go into the school districts and look around," Weinstein recalled. "Sometimes seeing subtle interactions, you get a sense of what's going on that you can't get from cold record."
Last May, Weinstein visited a housing project in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was home to eight gang members he had to sentence. The judge seemed remorseful in a 133-page ruling that sentenced those men to minimum sentences of several years, still far shorter than what prosecutors demanded.
His opinion in that case outlined the historical, economic and racial factors that contribute to the war on drugs, which he condemned as "self-defeating" in a 1993 New York Times editorial.
Even today, Weinstein said that he steps down from the bench during sentencing to sit with the defendants and their families.
"I like to hear from the defendant himself when I talk to the defendant fairly deeply about background and education and employment and romances," he said. "So I get a better feel for the defendant as a person across the table."
During this process, he also gauges the family's reactions to "get a better feel for the situation."
He has all of the proceedings videotaped to memorialize the "subtle factors" that enter his decision, which get left out of the official transcripts.
"If the Court of Appeals has a doubt about how these subtle factors enter into the matter of sentencing, they can look at the video, and they can see what the family's reaction was and what the defendant's reaction was," Weinstein said.
The videos can also prevent a defendant from claiming in subsequent habeas petitions that he did not understand the judge's instructions, he added.
Weinstein says the 2nd Circuit has never asked to see one these videos, which he keeps in a sealed drawer.
If he grants leniency to a defendant, Weinstein usually files a "statement of reasons" to justify his decision for prosecutors.
Over the past year, the vast majority of the "Statements of Reasons" filed on the Eastern District of New York docket have borne Weinstein's signature.
In one March 6 statement, Weinstein described how 44-year-old Zenon Guzman Vargas supported his family for decades, before getting busted for dealing cocaine.
"Mr. Guzman's father died when he was young, and he had to leave school and go to work to help support his family," Weinstein wrote. "He entered the United States illegally in 1993 for economic reasons and to obtain medication for his mother, who was ill. Before being arrested for the present offense, he held a variety of jobs, working principally in different automobile body shops in New York and Delaware. At present, he has been imprisoned for nearly four and a half years."