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"Congress is mandating things simply because they want to show how tough they are on crime with no sense of whether this makes sense or is meaningful," U.S. District Judge John S. Martin said in an interview with The Associated Press.
The result, he said, is a slew of lengthy prison sentences for low-level drug dealers "who society failed at every step."
"Sentences should be just. We shouldn't be putting everybody in jail for the rest of their life," Martin said.
While many judges have criticized sentencing guidelines, it is unusual for a judge to publicly cite the frustrations of the job in stepping down.
Martin, 68, conceded he also wants to make more money after serving for 13 years in a judgeship that pays less than second-year associates make at many law firms. Federal judges earn $154,700 a year.
But he said the prime motivation came April 30, when President Bush signed a bill forcing federal judges to strictly follow sentencing guidelines.
Martin said he supports guidelines for the purpose of ensuring uniform sentencing nationwide, but added that Congress was going beyond that and forcing judges to impose harsh sentences on defendants who don't deserve them.
"While I might have stayed on despite the inadequate pay, I no longer want to be part of our unjust criminal justice system," he wrote in an opinion piece published Tuesday in The New York Times.
A one-time federal prosecutor, Martin said he plans to complete his caseload by summer's end and re-enter private practice. He said he is considering organizing former federal judges and top prosecutors to lobby Congress to make guidelines more sensible.
Martin has earned a reputation as a judge capable of stern sentences: In sentencing one violent gang member to life, Martin ordered the man held in solitary confinement and said he would have imposed death if he could.