An Occupation In Eastern Oregon

Why Were The Hammonds Sent Back To Prison?

By Amelia Templeton (OPB) and Bryan M. Vance (OPB)
Jan. 9, 2016 1:45 a.m.

Armed men flocked to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday, taking control of federal buildings to protest federal management of Western lands.


While land management has been hotly debated since the armed occupation began, the initial issue that brought the men to Harney County was the sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond to prison under a mandatory minimum law.

The Hammonds, father and son ranchers from the area, were convicted for setting a fire in 2001 that burned on federally-maintained land. The son, Steven, was convicted for setting another fire in 2006, which he said was a backburn to prevent wildfire from spreading to his property.


The Hammonds received prison sentences of roughly a year or less each for their actions, but mandatory minimums came into play because of the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act that Congress passed in 1996.

The act mandated a minimum five-year sentence for the crime of maliciously damaging property of the United States with fire.

The initial judge in the Hammond case rejected the mandatory minimum, arguing it violated the Constitution's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The men served their time and were released, but a federal appeal of the trial court judge's ruling eventually made its way to an appeals court, which rejected the judge's ruling based on precedent set by previous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court.

So several years after both men were released from prison, they were sentenced to return and serve out the rest of their mandatory minimum sentences.

The Hammonds turned themselves in to federal authorities and began serving out the rest of those terms Monday. But by then a group of citizens outraged by the sentencing had taken up the issue and took control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

OPB reporter Amelia Templeton spoke with All Things Considered host Kate Davidson about the mandatory minimum law and why this case sparked such outrage.