Sentence inflation is the sort of thing one notices. When I started defending people accused of crimes, a first-time gun possession would get probation. As fear rose during the crack epidemic, the sentence required a mandatory minimum of a year. Under New York law, it now has a mandatory minimum of 3½ years. So no time to serious time all in my lifetime.
The theory was based on a belief that made complete sense to the public, and was easily played by lawmakers who capitalized on public fears: the longer the sentence, the less likely someone would commit the crime. The problem with the theory was twofold: first, people don’t really consider sentence when deciding to commit crimes. They don’t know what the sentences are, even though people believe that people inclined to commit crimes are somehow knowledgeable about such things. They’re not. In fact, they’re often not the brightest folks around.
Second, the length of sentence went beyond any useful purpose. If someone was going to be deterred from committing a crime, ten years would more than suffice if any length of time was going to work. When it didn’t work, the solution was to double down, make sentences longer, then longer again, then even longer.
It served to isolate people in prison, but well past their criminal shelf life, and well into the consequential problems of additional harm to their families and children, their inability to reintegrate into society upon release and cost a huge bundle, particularly as they aged and costly health problems arose.
Perhaps the worst part of this scheme that took place, step-by-step, over decades is that we became inured to these ever-longer sentences, as if there were some rational basis to fix a sentence at 37 years rather than some absurdly long period of time pulled out of thin air. People believed these sentences to have some sort of legitimacy, some penal justification, rather than just numbers the public took for granted.
On top of these problems, there is the fact that many of these sentences are imposed on young people, usually men in their “prime crime” age, since people generally “age out” of crime as they get older. In the District of Columbia, a “second chance” type law allowed prisoners who committed their crime when under the age of 18 to petition for review and reduction of their sentence. As we’ve come to realize, kids do stupid things as their brains are still developing and they may lack the ability to appreciate the impropriety of their actions. Fifteen years later, they’re not the same people as they were when they went in.
A bill has been proposed in the District of Columbia to expand review to prisoners who committed their crime under the age 25. The Washington Post is against it.
Current D.C. law enables inmates serving lengthy sentences to petition for a reduced sentence if they committed their crime before turning 18. By increasing the cutoff to age 25, and by making inmates eligible for release after just 15 years, the legislation would go further than that of any state in the nation.
The two key elements of the proposed law are to increase the age of immaturity to 25 and make the period of imprisonment for eligibility “just 15 years.”
The measure would apply to inmates convicted of the most terrible crimes: murders and sexual assaults. It would apply even to serial killers, mass murderers and rapists.
This was the sort of nonsensical fearmongering that gave rise to sentence inflation in the first place. If they hadn’t been convicted of “the most terrible crimes,” whatever that means, they wouldn’t be serving absurdly long sentences in the first place. As bad as sentence inflation may be, you still don’t get 30 years for jaywalking. And it would also apply to inmates convicted of less than terrible crimes, like drug dealing. But that’s not the point. Sentence is imposed in the first instance based on the “terribleness” of the crime. This is a review more than a decade later to determine whether continued imprisonment is needed.
And no prisoner is guaranteed to have his sentence cut. Is it possible that a mass murderer could seek a reduction? Of course. Would he get it? Maybe, if he earned it, but maybe not. Regardless, the fact that a mass murder would have the right to ask doesn’t provide cover to denying it to those who aren’t mass murderers, as WaPo argues.
That’s part of the problem with the legislation, sponsored by council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6): In the most appalling crimes, it makes a mockery of sentences handed down by judges. While no convict’s appeal for sentence reduction would be granted automatically — courts would remain empowered to review a range of factors, including the degree to which the petitioner seemed to have been rehabilitated — there’s a catch. Earlier this year, the D.C. Council deleted a legal requirement that judges consider the severity of the crime itself.
The point of a sentence isn’t to validate whatever the judge decides at the time it’s imposed and avoid making the judge feel as if his efforts to impose a proper sentence is being “mocked.” No good judge believes he’s got the magical ability to see into the future, to know how a person will turn out 15 years later. It’s not to blame judges for doing their best in a system that’s based almost entirely on rank supposition, but as Judge Kopf found out with Shon Hopwood, sometimes your sentence isn’t magic. Sometimes, the future doesn’t hold what you think it does.
The point of the law is not to revisit the crime for which the defendant was sentenced. It makes no sense, as that number has already been established. We know what the judge thought of the severity of the crime because we know what the initial sentence was. The point of reviewing a sentence, a second chance, is to see what has happened since then.
And lest anyone forget, this is for prisoners who committed crimes when their heads were twisted with youthful dopiness and doesn’t come into play until after they’ve served 15 years. Fifteen years is a long time. A very, very long time. For many defendants, it’s more than long enough.