Should all prison sentences end after 20 years?
“In 1995, I sentenced a teenage armed robber to 146 years in prison. Believe it or not, that was just a little over the mandatory minimum sentence. With good time and ‘early’ release on parole, he could be out as soon as 2065, having served a little less than 70 years. He’ll be almost 90,” Morris Hoffman, a Colorado state judge, wrote earlier this month. The teen had robbed a small restaurant at gunpoint and ended up in a shootout with a customer who had a gun. No one except the teen was injured. The prosecutor, who wanted 200 years, “was visibly angry with my measly 146-year sentence,” he wrote. “Since I imposed that sentence 23 years ago, that DA has retired, my children have grown up and had their own children, and my black hair is turning gray. The world saw the mapping of the human genome and the rise of the internet. My teenage robber saw the inside of a prison, and he has at least 48 more years to go.” [Morris Hoffman / Wall Street Journal]
Morris traces the origins of America’s extreme sentencing––from 1785, when a New York statute limited all nonhomicide prison sentences to six months, to today, when the U.S. doles out 40 percent of the world’s life sentences. In 1925, aggravated robbery was eligible for probation in Colorado. By 1998, prison was mandatory, and the minimum was 10 years per victim. Morris notes lawmakers raised sentences to deter crime, but also for rehabilitation. Both of these were misguided. Still, Morris is no prison abolitionist. He identifies as a “retributivist,” punishing “mainly because those who intentionally harm others deserve to be punished,” he writes. “But if retribution offers a moral justification for punishment, it also imposes limits. [The] duty comes with the obligation not to punish criminals more than they deserve.” Morris urges legislators to go beyond the First Step Act and “consider lowering historically extreme sentences for some offenses, including violent ones. It would not only be sensible public policy but would also help return our criminal law to its moral roots.” [Morris Hoffman / Wall Street Journal]
“It’s time for a radical idea that could really begin to reverse mass incarceration: capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years” wrote Vox’s German Lopez last week. “It may sound like an extreme, even dangerous, proposal, but there’s good reason to believe it would help reduce the prison population without making America any less safe.” Lopez explains that during the 1980s and ’90s, many American officials––including some who are now running for president––believed that underincarceration was contributing to a crime wave. Lawmakers increased the length of prison sentences, enacted mandatory minimums, and restricted parole. Now we have a serious overincarceration problem, which won’t go away until prison sentences, including sentences that people are already serving, are drastically shortened. “Empirical research has consistently found that locking up people for very long periods of time does little to nothing to combat crime, and may actually lead to more crime as people spend more time in prison—missing big life opportunities for legitimate careers, and being incarcerated with others who have ties to the criminal world,” he writes. “There’s also good reason to believe that 20 years is a good cutoff for a maximum. Studies have found that people almost always age out of crime, particularly by their late 30s and 40s.” [German Lopez / Vox]
“There should be a limited exception, like there is in Norway, that lets courts extend prison sentences indefinitely for an additional five years at a time, but only if there’s proof that a person still poses a public safety threat,” Lopez writes. Even though the idea has little chance of success right now, pushing it “forces a conversation about what prisons are for: Are they for keeping the public safe? Rehabilitating inmates? Purely for revenge? If our answer as a society is the first two, but not the latter, then a cap is something we should consider.” Vengeance doesn’t make sense. “Even without a cap, the majority of people in prison will be released and re-enter society at some point. When we have those people literally captive, why not take the opportunity to try to make sure they can be productive members of society when they return?” Conversations like these can help get at the “root cultural and social forces that enabled and encouraged mass incarceration to begin with.” [German Lopez / Vox]
Some reform-minded prosecutors around the country are looking for creative ways to fight extreme sentences. “As more elected prosecutors break with their tough-on-crime predecessors and pledge to reduce prison populations, [many] have started to review old convictions to identify cases where, even if the conviction was sound, the punishment did not fit the crime,” Kyle Barry wrote for The Appeal last year. “About two dozen prosecutors have announced plans to review old sentences, including Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner” who has “announced the creation of a formal sentence review program.” Last year, California passed a law that was the first in the country to give prosecutors the power to recommend reducing sentences “in the interest of justice.” It allows for resentencing not just in a case of clear rehabilitation, but also to keep up with modern sentencing practices. [Kyle C. Barry / The Appeal]
Excessive sentencing cannot be fixed by prosecutors alone. States would have to roll back sentencing enhancements, shift their sentencing guidelines, and begin using parole and other release mechanisms in earnest if they are going to make a dent in the prison population. Some states, however, are moving in the opposite direction. A new report from the ACLU of Ohio shows that in the past legislative session, 12 percent of all bills introduced contained provisions to send more people to prison or jail. And last week, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that, if signed by the governor, would impose a mandatory minimum of life in prison for anyone convicted of 15 capital crimes, eliminating the discretion of a judge. Molly Gill, vice president of policy at FAMM, formerly known as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said, “I would tell the state to prepare to spend a lot of money in the coming years on old, sick prisoners.” [Patricia Sullivan / Washington Post]