« Alabama rolls out new presumptive sentencing guidelines (which prosecutors mostly oppose) | Main | "The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All" »

October 2, 2013

NY Times editorial laments "Writing Off Lives"

The New York Times earlier this week ran this editorial headlined "Writing Off Lives" to complain about the modern (over)use of LWOP sentences. Here are excerpts:

[T]he number of people in prison for life has more than quadrupled since 1984 and continues to grow at a startling pace. The zealous pursuit of these sentences began in the 1970s, becoming something of a fad; it is past time to revisit the practice.

A new study from the Sentencing Project, a research group, found that one in nine inmates, about 160,000 people, is serving a life sentence.  Nearly one-third of these prisoners are serving life without parole. Many of these lifers were convicted of nonviolent crimes or of crimes that occurred before they turned 18.

For much of the 20th century, a sentence as harsh as life without parole was rarely used. Instead, a person sentenced to “life” — for murder, say — could be released after 15 years when the parole board determined that he or she had been rehabilitated and no longer posed a threat. This began to change during the drug war years. Harsher sentences once reserved for people convicted of capital crimes were expanded to include robbery, assault and nonviolent drug offenses. States restricted the use of parole and governors who feared being portrayed as soft on crime began to deny virtually all clemency requests.

Research shows lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety. But these long sentences are turning prisons into geriatric centers where the cost of care is prohibitively high. The practice of routinely locking up people forever — especially young people — also ignores the potential for rehabilitation. The whole trend is deeply counterproductive. States need to encourage more rational sentencing, restore the use of executive clemency and bring parole back into the corrections process.

October 2, 2013 at 09:19 PM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e2019affbdca52970b

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference NY Times editorial laments "Writing Off Lives":

Comments

"The practice of routinely locking up people forever — especially young people — also ignores the potential for rehabilitation."

These idiot Times editorial writers (but I repeat myself) fail to understand that getting it wrong with respect to violent criminals results in more violent crime victims (of course, these editorial writers never talk in terms of lives thrown away when it comes to crimes that should have been prevented). Thus, the issue is one of risk allocation. Who should bear the risk of uncertainty of getting all sentences "right" in the cosmic sense--innocent members of society or violent criminals. The question answers itself.

"For much of the 20th century, a sentence as harsh as life without parole was rarely used. Instead, a person sentenced to “life” — for murder, say — could be released after 15 years when the parole board determined that he or she had been rehabilitated and no longer posed a threat."

Putting aside for a sec, the appalling injustice of letting murderers go after 15 years and a snowjob given to a parole board, how many good, law-abiding people suffered as a result of this nonsense? And now the Times editorial board wants to go back to that? Either these people are evil or hopelessly naive.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 2, 2013 9:43:30 PM

For much of the 20th century, a sentence as harsh as life without parole was rarely used.

They just sentenced people to death or to centuries of prison, as here, here and here.

Research shows lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety.

..apart keeping the rif-raff out the streets? I concur with federalist's post.

Posted by: visitor | Oct 3, 2013 9:11:53 AM

NB:The last two links in my post are available here and here. (in my previous post these links have been badly written)

Posted by: visitor | Oct 3, 2013 9:23:25 AM

Other countries manage to "improve public safety" without having as long prison sentences and cruel prisons. But, we are special.

Posted by: Joe | Oct 3, 2013 11:06:40 AM

Once again, Joe doesn't address the point, but writes some condescending nonsense. Tell you what, Joe, we'll let you live next door to the murderer who gets out after 15 years.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 4, 2013 12:25:54 AM

"NY Times editorial laments 'Writing Off Lives'"

It would be wonderfully refreshing if the NY Times were not so thoroughly devoted to writing off the lives of crime victims. But some things simply are not to be.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2013 10:32:27 AM

I don't see how treating prisoners humanely "writes off the lives of crime victims." One can be humane toward criminals and feel compassion for victims - at the same time.

Posted by: Liz McD | Oct 4, 2013 5:35:16 PM

Bill Otis,

The editorial makes some provocative points, and you simply refuse to respond on the merits. Why not, for example, leave some flexibility in the system to reconsider sentences, taking account of the circumstances of the offender many years after the fact. To be sure, there are offenders who should never be released. But that, of course, does not mean we could not produce better outcomes by applying true natural life sentences more selectively. And, it is obviously true that the fact some mistakes will inevitably be made does not mean that getting a way from a LWOP system -- let alone a mandatory LWOP system -- is a bad proposition with poor expected value. You claim to be an expert, but you are primarily an enabler of those who lack the education and sophistication to deal with empiricism -- rather than just emotion -- and look for real solutions, with guidance from experts. As you know, and Joe rightly points out, very few other Western industrialized countries use LWOP or capital punishment, and almost all have murder rates that are near orders of magnitude lower than those in the United States. Indeed, even many of your fellow "conservatives," e.g., Ed Meese and Newt Gingrinch, realize that that our sentencing systems need reform. All of this should be food for thought, not juvenile mockery.

Posted by: Mike | Oct 4, 2013 5:37:22 PM

Mike --

"The editorial makes some provocative points, and you simply refuse to respond on the merits."

I respond on the merits vastly more than any commenter on this blog, most certainly including you. Do you suppose that I am obliged to respond on the merits to everything?

"Why not, for example, leave some flexibility in the system to reconsider sentences, taking account of the circumstances of the offender many years after the fact."

Sounds like a reasonable possibility, so long as the "flexibility" includes the option of increasing a sentence if the prisoner proves to be a bad actor. Are you on board with that, or does it go in one direction only?

"You claim to be an expert, but you are primarily an enabler of those who lack the education and sophistication..."

I have been called as an "expert" witness by Congress a few times, yes. It is hardly up to me to say, and I have not said, whether I am an "expert" in any other sense. Nor is it relevant. My arguments, when I choose to make them, will stand or fall on their own, not because I either am or am not an "expert."

As for "education and sophistication," all those educated and sophisticated folks who ran the criminal justice system in the Sixties and Seventies did a great job, right?

"...look for real solutions, with guidance from experts."

Translation: Look for ways to release violent criminals, with advice from people who are very impressed with themselves.

Been there, done that. No thanks.

"Indeed, even many of your fellow 'conservatives,' e.g., Ed Meese and Newt Gingrinch, realize that that our sentencing systems need reform."

Would that be the sentencing systems that helped bring crime down by half in the last 20 years? Are those the systems you're talking about?

"All of this should be food for thought, not juvenile mockery."

Am I supposed to be impressed by anonymous Internet insults? Gosh!!!

Posted by: Bill Otis | Oct 4, 2013 11:26:55 PM

Bill's response is cogent, and I probably shouldn't add my two cents, but Mike's post deserves to be pilloried.

First of all, the that other nations don't have the crime problems that we do is pretty much irrelevant. The issue is how we deal with our crime problems, and letting murderers out after a scant 15 years (something which the NYTimes approves of) is crazy. So given that the NYTimes editorial board is all wet, why should we engage in a point by point rebuttal. To paraphrase the Bard, there is two bits of wheat in two bushels of chaff. I have better things to do.

Posted by: federalist | Oct 5, 2013 10:11:58 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB