Throw away the key?
Updated: Oct 23
Recently Larry Nassar, the former U.S. gymnastics doctor who abused young women and girls under the guise of medical treatment, was sentenced to 40-125 years in prison for criminal sexual misconduct by a Judge in Eaton County, Michigan. Nassar was already serving 40 years for a federal pornography case and had been sentenced to 40-175 years in Ingham County, Michigan. Nassar will serve the sentences for criminal sexual misconduct concurrently, but not until he completes the 40 years for his federal conviction. During Nassar’s sentencing hearing in Eaton County, the number of victims who had come forward totaled 265. It is very likely that Nassar, who is 54 years of age, will spend the rest of his life in prison and in a case like this there is no doubt that justice has been served. However, not all cases where defendants are sentenced to long prison terms are as clear cut as this one.
In an article from December 9, 2016, Time reported that 39% of prisoners should not be in prison in the first place, and the prisoners who are serving time should not be serving sentences as long as they are. The article also reported that longer prison sentences have been shown to lead to higher rates of recidivism and are not that effective in deterring crime. The author of the article suggests that there are ways to cut prison sentence length while still ensuring sanctions for serious crimes involving significant prison time, like the crimes committed by Nassar. The approach would consider four major factors: seriousness of the crime (i.e. murder would be more serious than petty theft); victim impact; intent; and recidivism rate.
These factors presented by the authors resemble many of the mitigating factors that judges currently use in determining sentence length. However, the authors also suggest eliminating prison time altogether for lower level offenses, a concept that is unlikely to catch on anytime soon and one that would go against minimum mandatory sentences prescribed by the courts and by statutes (mainly used for drug offenses). Another article, published by the Economist, also suggests that longer sentence terms generally don’t deter crime as much as people would normally presume so, thus the negative impact on society for shortening prison length for low-level crimes would be minimal.
In May 2017, members of the American Law Institute approved the final draft of the Model Penal Code’s (MPC) sentencing section, a 15-year project in the making. The provisions of the MPC on sentencing are predicated on society’s objective to protect society as fully and as reasonably as possible, but also designed to prevent arbitrary and excessive penalties, exactly the issue that the articles from Time and the Economist address. Under the MPC, felonies are graded into three categories according to seriousness, with minimum terms of sentencing decided by the court, while state statute will cap the maxims. This allows a range that could be adjusted on a case-by-case basis, with plenty of room left for judicial discretion.
Maxims are important because even once a defendant is sentenced by a judge to a specified prison or jail term there is no clear indication of exactly how long they will spend in jail. Some inmates remain in prison or jail for terms way longer than they were initially sentenced for, while other inmates are released sooner than they should have been. This is due to multiple factors affecting indeterminate sentence length including; the overcrowding of prisons and jails (which could shorten an inmates term by early release), the inmates conduct in jail (which may lengthen or shorten the sentence), and the possibility of parole (which is also based on multiple factors including conduct).
Last year in California two men were sentenced to two years in county jail for stealing avocados from a produce facility where they were employed. The story went viral and although it was made out as a joke, the avocados were valued at over $200,000 and in California (and most jurisdictions) that amounts to grand larceny; a felony. The two men were also ordered to pay restitution to the victim. If the men remain in jail for as long as they are sentenced, they will have served longer sentences than Brock Turner, from the infamous Stanford rape case. Turner was released from prison after only serving three months of a six-month jail sentence for sexual assault. This case lead to public outrage and a petition to recall the judge who sentenced Turner.
Whether applying the MPC, the factors provided by the author of the Time article, or just using common sense, there is a serious discrepancy here, part of which is based on the judicial discretion given to each case. In many instances, like the Nassar case, defendants deserve to serve very long sentences, life sentences even, but under other circumstances do the sentences imposed on defendants really protect and benefit society?