Sunday, October 02, 2005

NYTimes and the Definition of a "Life" Sentence

To More Inmates, Life Term Means Dying Behind Bars - New York Times The Times seems upset to find that Life means Life. Some lawyers and a few judges are amazed as well.

In the past, "Life" meant 12 to 20 years. Is that enough for ending someone's life? I don't think so. Prison is punishment, and it is supposed to act as a deterrent to potential criminals. One of the reasons we are enjoying rates of violent crime that are at or near 30-year-lows is that we enacted "get tough on crime" laws in the late 80's and early 90's.

Life without Parole was also brought up by the opponents of capital punishment as an alternative.
The phenomenon is in some ways an artifact of the death penalty. Opponents of capital punishment have promoted life sentences as an alternative to execution. And as the nation's enthusiasm for the death penalty wanes amid restrictive Supreme Court rulings and a spate of death row exonerations, more states are turning to life sentences.
The Times' poster-boy for getting rid of these harsh sentences shot his girlfriend three times with a shotgun, and when that didn't kill her he drowned her in a lake. He claims to be rehabilitated. I think he needs to be punished for a monstrous crime. I am willing to concede that since he committed the crime when he was 15, maybe he has been, but not everyone serving a life sentence committed a crime as minor, and many of them committed more than one violent crime. It is not a good idea to form policy by anecdote. (Should Charles Manson be paroled? How long should Daniel A. Wells serve for drowning his daughter?)

The Times seems particularly distressed that some of these laws have caught criminals who are not murderers
Fewer than two-thirds of the 70,000 people sentenced to life from 1988 to 2001 are in for murder, the Times analysis found. Other lifers - more than 25,000 of them - were convicted of crimes like rape, kidnapping, armed robbery, assault, extortion, burglary and arson.
What the times fails to mention is that many of these are away as part of "three strikes, and your out" laws. Habitual criminals are put away for good on the theory that they won't change their habits. Personally I have no problem seeing violent criminals off the street forever.

Do some of these sentencing laws need to be modified? Probably they do. But the system as a whole is working. Crime has been reduced. [Hat tip Hold the Mayo]

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