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What Some Prison Sentence Lengths Actually Reflect

by Ed Lyon

When a criminal convictee is sentenced, the number of months or years assessed does not always mean the convictee will remain in prison for that entire time.

Nearly all states and most other jurisdictions in the world have a parole system where prisoners are conditionally released into society, under varying levels of supervision after meeting eligibility and suitability requirements. Some jurisdictions have statutory maximums built into imprisonment periods regardless of sentence length, while others may use mandatory release to parole supervision schemes.

Thailand’s penal code has a sentence limit of 20 years built into its laws. Phudit Kittitradilok was sentenced to 13,275 years in prison in December 2017 for running a Ponzi scheme. The long sentence in his case served only the appearance of justice.

Norway did away with the death penalty in 1902. In 1981, the country abrogated life sentences. The maximum prison sentence in Norway now is 21 years.

To relieve prison overcrowding, Texas adopted a mandatory supervision release scheme in 1977. A prisoner would either serve a third of the sentence in violent cases or build a third with flat time, coupled with earned good time, to be mandatorily released from prison to parole supervision for the remainder of the sentence. A 60-year benchmark was used for the cap.

Texas courts used this guideline for sentencing, but by 1997 the state had built so many prisons it could not follow the legally required releases without shuttering a prison or three, so the prison and parole systems have been ignoring these mandatory release laws. Actual sentence lengths are now longer than intended.

Many states, including Texas, have enacted sentences of life without parole. One of the Oklahoma City Alfred P. Murrah federal building bombers, Terry Nichols, was assessed 161 life-without-parole sentences. Thus, some sentences actually do reflect what they are on the surface.

Four factors are generally considered when sentencing a convictee. Retribution covers punishment for what the person did. Deterrence is factored to send a message to other possible offenders, as well as to the convictee’s future consideration to offend. Safety ensures society will be more secure with the convictee locked away, and rehabilitation corrects aberrant behavior through education and program completions during a prison term.

Most prosecutors seek long sentences, a solution to satisfy all four of the above factors, especially in the United States. Excessive sentence lengths cause prison overcrowding and, in turn, lead to excessive imprisonment costs. Get-tough-on-crime programs and harsh sentencing saw the U.S. prison population skyrocket from only 200,000 prisoners in 1974 to more than 1,500,000 in 2002, to over 2,200,000 prisoners at present with an attendant annual cost of $59,900,000,00.

This represents an 11-fold increase in prisoners with the current U.S. Attorney General in Washington calling for even longer prison sentences. The U.S. already far outstrips most other jurisdictions in sentence lengths. An assault conviction in Great Britain averages 15 months; in the U.S., it averages 60 months, a four-fold increase in incarceration time.

Some driving factors behind this are politicians using tough-on-crime as oratory platforms. Many people are negatively affected when a crime is committed, and no segment of society feels slighted when crime is harangued. Deeply embedded cultural values of individualism and personal responsibility throughout the U.S. is supportive of long sentencing.

Education is a viable alternative to harsh sentencing. Many studies show the more educated a person is, the more the value of time is realized.

Another alternative is to revisit how prisons are operated. Norway has adopted an open prison program without fences or armed guards. Prisoners who prove by their conduct they can be trusted are placed in prisons resembling college campuses more than prisons. The result is a 20 percent recidivism rate, compared to a 67 percent rate in the U.S. over a two- to three-year period after leaving prison. Then again, Norway’s average prison sentence is eight months, far less than the U.S.

Sentence reform, to include truth in sentencing, would be a great start in the U.S. 


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