Why are some prison sentences so long?

 
Ariel Castro After sentencing, the judge told Ariel Castro he was too dangerous to ever be released

Kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro has been sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years. What's the point in extending a prison term beyond a person's lifetime, asks Tom Geoghegan.

Sentencing is not just about determining how long someone should be behind bars, it also has a symbolic, theatrical function, says Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, who has written extensively about deterrents.

"In sentencing Bernie Madoff [to 150 years for fraud], what the judge wants to be telling him is 'you are really a bad person.' And for this purpose, the number of years can be endlessly elastic."

How much symbolic denunciation plays a part can depend on many things, such as media coverage or the nature of an offence, but the tension between these two radically different functions - the symbolic and practical - is a feature of modern criminal justice systems, he says, and not just in the US. There was a famous case in Spain where a fraudster received a 2,000-year sentence.

Parole means the sentence can be adjusted at a later date. But it has been eliminated for life sentences in many parts of the country.

Some long US sentences

Bernie Madoff
  • 150 years: Bernie Madoff (pic), fraud, 2009
  • 835 years: Shalom Weiss, fraud, 2000
  • 957 years: Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer, 1992
  • 1,000 years: Peter Mallory, child sexual exploitation, 2013
  • Life plus 1,000 years: Ariel Castro, rape and kidnap, 2013

Most criminal prosecutions in the US are brought by the state, so there can be huge variations in sentencing. Judges are constrained by a statutory range but, depending on the crime, that could be very broad or have no maximum sentence at all.

Fraud against one person can involve multiple crimes like false statements, wire fraud and theft, so consecutive sentences for each charge can fast add up. The same goes for crimes involving a computer, like child pornography, because each image could be a separate count. Minor misdemeanours are more likely to result in concurrent sentences.

For victims of crime and their loved ones there is nothing problematic about a very long sentence. Indeed, a sentence that increases with each guilty charge is a way of telling each victim that they matter.

Some long sentences are an alternative to the death penalty. Dudley Wayne Kyzer is serving two life terms plus 10,000 years for a triple murder he committed in the 1970s. After four years on death row, he was given a second trial because the death penalty in Alabama was at the time deemed unconstitutional.

Tommy Smith was Tuscaloosa County Assistant District Attorney when he persuaded the trial judge to impose the long sentence as an alternative. "The jury sent a message. They don't want him released," he said. Kyzer has been denied parole nine times.

 

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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 118.

    Why does a person found guilty of multiple offences seems to serve the sentence for each offence concurrently and not consecutively. Stuart Hall was found guilty of many offences for which he received 15 months each I believe, but as he was ordered to serve the concurrently his sentence was only 15 months until the appeal when one of the sentences was changed to run consecutively.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 117.

    @114

    the death sentance might not be the best way to reduce crime, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper than keeping someone locked up with clean clothes, electricity and 3 meals a day for 40+ years.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 116.

    When Canada repealed the DP convictions went up. Why? Because many people are reluctant to send people to their deaths, even when they know they are guilty. Just throwing that in the mix.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 115.

    When will politicians become personally liable for what is done 'in our name' ?

    And what about political acts of treason ?
    What should be their sentence ?

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 114.

    109. Major Tom - great thinking! Why not simply apply the death penalty to any misdemeanour...

    Seriously, anyone who has even a passing interest in this subject will know, as an irrefutable fact, that the death penalty is not an effective means of lowering violent crime. All the comments in support of it are simply stultifyingly misinformed.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 113.

    @107 Dave

    If just one innocent person is executed in error the death penalty fails as a punishment. To say that to sacrifice the lives of a few innocent people for better crime statistics is justified is a ridiculous thing to say. There is absolutely no proof that the death penalty works as a deterrent especially not to those who are religiously extreme.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 112.

    Indeed an Island prison where we can dump all those people we don't want to deal with. Sounds good to me, perhaps we could convert Manhattan Island, wall it in from the outside put mines across all the bridges.

    "It's the survival of the human race, Plissken. Something you don't give a s*** about."

  • Comment number 111.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 110.

    I'm not a huge fan of rehabilitation - it has a sketchy success rate and there are more than enough useful members of society without us having to try and rescue those who make our world an unpleasant place to be.

    We should find a large island and dump those who decide to opt out of society's rules.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 109.

    The punishemnt must not fit the crime. The punishment must be so severe that no-one will commit the crime in the first place.

    If the punishment for illegal parking was £1000, your car crushed into a cube and returned to you, how many people would park illegally?

    Problem, in theory, is you would have to be insane to commit the crime in the first place. Lawyers would become insanity pleaders.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 108.

    73. TIM

    They should not die because murdering a murderer is still MURDER. I think most people learn when they are young that 2 wrongs don't make a right, I must have missed the asterix, "Except in cases where the wrong is murder".

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 107.

    At GranolaBaa, comment 92: I agree with you but there have been hung people who have belatedly been found to be innocent. I think that the likely benefits (lower crime, fear of punishment, less people in prison, etc) outweigh the few falsely-accused that are murdered by the state in error - but that is always going to be a thorny philosophical argument.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 106.

    88Tim. In both cases the jury found the defendants guilty beyond reasonable doubt (which is the only way to convict). In one of the cases the judge expressed regret that he was unable to kill them.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 105.

    So what are you saying, Disgusted? That the police should say to the public, "Sorry, we'll have to let this bloke go around shooting people, because we're not allowed to shoot him."

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 104.

    102.Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells
    4 Minutes ago

    So next time someone is going to slit your throat and there's an armed response officer with the ability to take them out, you'll be shouting for them to think about the criminals rights and how execution without a trial is wrong. I'm sure the criminal will appreciate this, let you go and realise the error of his ways...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 103.

    It doesn't make sense, so it can only be 'symbolic' - don't dare to stand against the State, even where the State is in the wrong. If you have the power and the brute force you get to make the rules. If only there were much longer sentences, with no parole, for real crimes - I'll bet a few parents of murdered children would feel the quality of their lives marginally improved.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 102.

    . . . interesting attitudes here to the death penalty . . . there is no crime in uk for which you can be sentenced to death . . . and yet the police are at liberty to shoot you dead, if they believe that you are endangering the lives of others, yet, even if you killed them, you would be out of jail in a couple of decades . . . death penalty without the benefit of a trial!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 101.

    The death penalty is one way of going about it but it does have its drawbacks. If faced with that ruling, offenders has nothing to lose whereas, those attempting the arrest have everything to lose. Too many of our laws are overly complicated and archaic with too many loopholes to be exploited and therein lies the problem. Banged up, you at least have a chance to live if found wrongly convicted.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 100.

    Surely the point of prison is not only to punish the individual but to rehabilitate the guilty so that they can return to society without fear of them re-offending - a prison sentence of 1000 years is effectively saying that "the system is so broken that we can see no way that we will ever be able to help you". It is simply not the best form of punishment for certain crimes / certain people.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 99.

    In a week where a jury in Florida is forbidden to convict a person who shot an unarmed teenager dead for no identifiable reason because the law does not allow a guilty verdict.
    Manning did something for the world good and harmed no-one - just a few egos
    Madoff with his ponzi scheme only fed on peoples greed to get unrealistic returns his victims have them selves to blame.

 

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