Thursday, June 20, 2013

Whose life is it, anyway?

As a society we proclaim our respect for human life. In practice we show little such respect. Exhibit A is our societal love of long prison sentences.

There are three broad theories of punishment in our criminal (in)justice system - rehabilitation, deterrence and removal. In reality we use a mix of all three theories as all three have major flaws that they cannot address.

Today we're going to focus on removal. Under the removal theory, criminals should be removed from society by locking them up for life or by murdering them. In Texas, capital murder carries either a sentence of life in prison without parole (what Jeff Gamso calls "death in prison") or death.

Across the United States there are over 140,000 prisoners who have been sentenced to life terms. Of those, almost a third are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Of those, some 2,500 are under the age of 18.

Now just think about that number for a second. We have, collectively, told 2,500 teenagers that their lives are worthless. Their brains have not fully matured, yet we are tossing them in a cell for the remainder of their lives.

I'm not here to say that some of those folks didn't do some pretty horrific things. But is locking someone up for life the answer. Maybe if the question is "what can we do to someone we are afraid of?" Because that's what it's really all about. The more you are afraid of someone, the easier it is to sentence him to a long stretch in prison.
David Wilson, professor of criminology at Birmingham City University, says several factors underlie the high number of American convicts imprisoned for life. 
"In large part it reflects the overly punitive nature of the American criminal justice system," says [Marc] Mauer. 
"Not only do we use life sentences much more extensively than other industrial nations, but even in the lower level of event severity, the average burglar or car thief will do more time than they will in Canada or Wales."
The reality is that putting someone in prison for life is rarely beneficial to any party involved in the crime. If you lock a man up for the rest of his life the taxpayers will end up playing the price for the staggering cost of health care as he gets older.

We live in a disposable society. We buy single use bottles of water and we package products in insane amounts of packaging. We manufacture items with the notion that it's going to need to be replaced sooner rather than later. Why not treat those around us the same way?

Over the last couple of decades we have seen a proliferation of "three-strikes-and-you're-out" laws that seek to impose either life sentences or very long sentences for those who had two or more felony convictions at the time they were arrested. The result has been overcrowded prisons and rising housing costs. And then there are the folks who were sent away for life on a misdemeanor charge that was enhanced to a felony as the result of prior misdemeanor convictions.

It is high time we did away with mandatory minimum sentences. Judges should have the discretion (in jurisdictions where the trial court determines punishment) to match the appropriate sentence to the case before the bar. It has become painfully obvious over the years that a one size fits all solution is no solution at all.

It's all too easy to lock someone away for a significant number of years. We need to move past that. Instead of embracing a number thrown out by a prosecutor, we need to focus on what is the minimum level of punishment that will fulfill our societal goals.


nidefatt said...

Probably also be helpful not to define burglary as entering a structure or car with the intent to commit theft. No sane society should call it a felony if someone reaches in an open car window and takes your sunglasses off the dash.

Anonymous said...

Your example would not be a felony. Unless the sunglasses were worth over $1,500 dollars and the person was charged with felony theft. Or if it was their third burglary of a motor vehicle.