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Extreme Sentencing

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August 13, 2012

Snatching a purse off the arm of an elderly woman is one of the nastier offenses I can think of – the kind of thing that might make you shake your head and say to yourself “I hope whoever did that gets what’s coming to him.” And then you think for a second about just what he ought to have coming to him: community service, maybe – or even a night in jail. Stealing from an old lady is pretty mean, after all, and you’d want whoever did it to learn a lesson.

I guess that’s what the state of Texas was thinking when it sentenced Willie James Sauls last week for that very crime. Except in this case, apparently the lesson Texas wants us all to learn is “we don’t believe in rehabilitation” – for the crime of stealing a purse, Sauls was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The prosecutors in the case justified the long sentence by pointing out that Sauls has prior convictions and that he "already had chances to address the issues with his behavior." And with that, they decided this purse snatcher should be locked in prison until he’s 82.

Also in Texas, in 2010, Larry Dayries stole a tuna sandwich from Whole Foods while wielding a knife. He had prior convictions for burglary and theft, so the sandwich incident landed him a 70-year sentence. Larry will be 111 at the end of his sentence.

Down the road in Mississippi, Anthony Crutcher is serving a 60-year sentence for selling $40 worth of cocaine. Anthony was sentenced under Mississippi’s habitual offender laws; his two prior convictions were also nonviolent, minor drug crimes. Anthony is due out of prison a month after his 101st birthday.

Sauls, Dayries and Crutcher are not anomalies – in fact, they are more like the rule. Since 1990, the average length of prison sentences in the U.S. has increased by 36 percent. Long sentences for non-violent first offenses, coupled with laws mandating increased penalties for repeat offenders, mean our prisons are more crowded than ever – even as crime rates have fallen.

Some might argue that these extreme sentencing policies would be justified by their effectiveness at dissuading would-be criminals. But that’s not the case. A 2003 review of the research on sentence severity and crime rates concluded that “sentencing severity has no effect on the level of crime in society.” And in 2005, researchers at California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the state’s notoriously punitive three strikes law, which will send a third-time felony offender to prison for 25 years to life even for a nonviolent offense, has no clear effect on crime rates in the state.

As the U.S. has doubled down on tough sentencing, we’ve diverged sharply from much of the developed world. In Canada, the Supreme Court declared a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for importing narcotics to be cruel and unusual punishment; in the U.S., selling a couple ounces of methamphetamine carries at least a ten-year sentence. In France, Italy and Germany, all prisoners serving life sentences have a right to be reviewed for potential release; in the U.S., there are 41,000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. And the U.S. is one of only 33 countries with mandatory increased penalties for offenders with prior convictions – alone with Japan in representing the developed world.

The U.S. incarcerates more people – in absolute numbers and per capita – than any other nation in the world, including the far more populous China and Russia. And, it seems, we incarcerate them for far longer. The dramatic, unprecedented rise in incarceration rates and lengths should be a source of great concern to all Americans: this lock-down mentality costs us dearly in freedom and tax dollars, but it doesn’t make us safer.

While bipartisan lawmakers have been willing to reform some parole and probation laws recently, there has been less political will to engage in meaningful sentencing reform. And yet we know that sentencing reform is essential to bringing down the number of people in our prisons and the associated costs. States like New York that have passed real sentencing reform have seen prison populations and crime rates go down significantly and stay down.

It is time for the U.S. to commit to real sentencing reform. We should stop jailing people for low-level offenses and reduce the number of people who needlessly enter prison in the first place; shrink the existing prison population by offering opportunities for ready prisoners to re-enter society; and in the meantime seek out more effective alternatives to incarceration like drug courts and work programs that are more effective at rehabilitation and reducing recidivism than lengthy sentences.

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