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May 10, 2008

A telling headline for modern sentencing times

This local story from California, carrying the headline "Sex offender faces up to millenium in prison," tellingly reveals so much about modern American attitudes toward incarceration. Here are snippets:

A convicted sex offender could be sentenced to more than a millenium in prison for molesting two girls, a prosecutor said Thursday. Horace Mann Williams, 44, is facing a penalty of up to 1,330 years in prison when he is sentenced Friday at the Murrieta Courthouse, said Deputy District Attorney Burke Strunsky.

Williams previously spent six years in prison for sexual molestation in the early 1990s.... Outside court, jurors said they convicted Williams because he showed a pattern of behavior typical for child molesters. “After a first offense and after a parole violation, he couldn't stay away from girls,” one juror said.

According to a probation officer's sentencing memorandum filed with the court, Williams is not eligible for parole and should receive consecutive time for each count and enhanced sentences for having prior strike offenses, having multiple victims and committing multiple offenses against multiple victims.

I think it is worth speculating whether Williams, if he had been threatened with the death penalty for repeat child rape, might have been more deterred after his release for his first offense.  Obviously, the prospect of being subject to imprisonment for over a millenium did not keep Williams from molesting kids again.  Though I doubt the distant threat of the a distant execution would have deterred Williams, I also see the good arguments for states to continue to consider experimenting with alternatives to incarceration for repeat sex offenders.  Perhaps if states get serious about new approach to preventing repeat sex offending, somebody might figure out a better way to deal with these crimes before the year 3308 when Williams could be scheduled for release.

May 10, 2008 at 11:28 AM | Permalink

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Tracked on May 14, 2008 10:48:53 PM

Comments

As repeatedly pointed out by commentators on this blog, to the extent that a perpetrator of such crimes considers the possible penalty at all, knowledge that the death penalty awaits would encourage him to murder the victim to eliminate the only witness against him.

Posted by: Michael R. Levine | May 10, 2008 11:40:33 AM

That's not necessarily true if the odds are, say, 70% that a child rape/murder results in a death sentence, whereas the odds are only, say, 10% that just a child rape results in a death sentence. I think it is beyond serious dispute (and supportable by lots of state data) that child rape/murders are MUCH more like to result in death sentences imposed by capital juries than just a child rape without a death.

My broader point is that I am not aware of any serious research on whether the threat of the death penalty might be a viable way to reduce repeat child sex offending. Of course, there are lots of competing possibilities and hypotheses. My goal here is to highlight the folly in this particular case of the notion that the threat of 1,330 years in prison could/would deter better than the threat of, say, 66 years in prison or 133 years in prison or 333 years in prison, or 666 years in prison.

In other words, this story is so goofy because the marginal deterrence value from imposing a prison sentence over, say, 100 years is essentially nil. But we have no experience with the possible marginal deterrence value of the death penalty in this context.

Posted by: Doug B. | May 10, 2008 12:17:34 PM

There was a study in California, many years ago now, comparing the extent of knowledge people have about penalties. Penalties for crimes are fixed before the fact and enforced after the fact. For comparison purposes, punishments are fixed after the fact, within a range that was set before the fact. This study asked three groups of people who were selected at random what the penalty was for several different crimes. As I recall, members of the League of Women Voters did best. Prison Inmates did the worst. My memory is fuzzy. Can anyone give me a correct citation? Maybe somebody will bring this study up to date.

Posted by: Tom McGee | May 10, 2008 7:14:43 PM

You may be referring to "Public Knowledge of Criminal Penalties." Or is it Statutory Penalties? I can't remember which. It's from the 80's, I think.

There was something more recent in Criminology, though. (2005? 2006?) Different decade, same findings, IIRC.

Posted by: Ilah | May 11, 2008 6:01:25 PM

Professor Berman is half right when he states:

"[T}his story is so goofy because the marginal deterrence value from imposing a prison sentence over, say, 100 years is essentially nil. But we have no experience with the possible marginal deterrence value of the death penalty in this context."

Sentences over 100 years are indeed goofy (particularly in a case involving two victims that is probably no harder to overturn on collateral attack than one or two long sentences).

But the United States actually has plenty of experience with a death penalty for rape (including but not limited to child rape), which was in place for a couple of hundred years in the United States and was used until shortly before the death penalty was abolished (briefly) in the United States.

The place to look would be rape statistics in say, the decade before and the decade after the death penalty for rape was abolished in places that had a death penalty for rape prior to its abolition, which would be late 20th century data and hence not entirely removed from contemporary norms and circumstances.

Alternately, one could compare aggravated rape incidence rates shortly before abolition of the death penalty for rape in jursidictions with and without that penalty that were otherwise as demographically as similar as possible.

Rape statistics are inherently problematic, of course, as reporting rates have varied a great deal, but this is probably the best one could do.

Posted by: ohwilleke | May 12, 2008 4:46:07 PM

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