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November 7, 2016

"Extreme Prison Sentences: Legal and Normative Consequences"

The title of this post is the title of this intriguing looking new paper authored by Melissa Hamilton now available via SSRN.  Here is the abstract:

The American criminal justice system has an obsession with lengthy prison sentences.  From theoretical perspectives, harsh penalties may be justified to retributively punish heinous criminals, to incapacitate dangerous people, and to deter potential wrongdoers.  But for a penalty to achieve any of these purposes it must still be proportional to the offense and offender.  A disproportionately severe sentence is harmful in being unnecessary and tyrannical in nature.

This Article reports on an empirical study of extreme sentences, which is defined to include sentences of imprisonment of at least 200 years. The author compiled an original dataset of extreme sentences issued in the federal sentencing system. Since the year 2000, federal judges sentenced 55 individuals to prison terms ranging from 200 to 1,590 years.  At such a length, these sentences may appear irrational as they are beyond any person’s natural lifespan, particularly as the federal system provides no opportunity for parole.  Thus, it may be of interest to understand how and why such extraordinary sanctions came to fruition and to confront the consequences thereof in terms of normalizing extreme prison sentences.

The study undertook quantitative and qualitative analyses of a variety of sources related to the cases in the dataset.  The sources included statistical databases, case opinions, governmental press releases, and news reports.  The study results revealed that the discourses underlying extremely long sentences generally (a) justified them for the theoretical purposes of retribution, incapacitation, and/or deterrence; (b) approved them on proportionality grounds; (c) regarded the penalties as the practical equivalent of life sentences; (d) represented an exclusionist mindset; (e) relied upon dehumanizing caricatures; and (f) presented with cognitive biases, such as anchoring and scaling effects.

In the end, however, the Article still questions whether the extreme nature of these sentences is rational in any circumstance as they represent penalties that no person can possibly complete.  And even if a prison term of at least two centuries may be a proper one, the author posits that such a penalty appears disproportionate for multiple cases in the dataset.  At least a few of the defendants, for example, were nonviolent, first-time offenders.  Further, the federal judiciary’s acceptance of sentences of these extreme lengths has normative consequences that likely will continue to have a ratchet effect in future cases.

November 7, 2016 at 05:03 PM | Permalink


My friendd Sholam Weiss got one of those sentences! 845 years (later reduced to 835 years!) for white collar crimes -- the longest white collar sentence in American history.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Nov 7, 2016 5:05:48 PM

If they're yidden, federal judges look for a way to hammer. Linda Reade is one of the sadists.

Posted by: FluffyRoss | Nov 8, 2016 7:02:38 AM

Judge Linda Reade's first widely publicized case was the trial and sentencing of kosher slaughterhouse operator Sholom Rubashkin. Judge Reade's 27-year sentence which exceeded the prosecutors 25 year request,[3] received responses from many prominent politicians and received national attention. After the conviction, records were obtained that showed Reade was meeting secretly with prosecutors for ten months before the raid on Rubashkin’s plant. Reade maintained that the meetings were only to prepare the courts for a case of such large magnitude. The 8th circuit of Appeals upheld the ruling, Judge Reade was scheduled to sit with two of the appellate judges (over other cases) on the same day just before her conduct was scheduled to be heard. A total of 86 former US Attorneys General, federal judges, and prosecutors wrote a letter to the United States Supreme Court denouncing Reade’s ruling, however the Supreme Court declined to review it. Forty-five members of Congress have written to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ask questions about Reade’s handling of the case. Due to separation of powers, the White House declined to comment on a petition with 52,226 online signatures asking it to investigate Judge Reade's handling of this case.[

Posted by: anon13 | Nov 9, 2016 7:52:48 AM

I am a student that happened upon the case of Odell Newton, a 16 year old convicted of aggravated robbery/murder of a cab driver in Baltimore Maryland. He was sentenced to life (25 years, correct), but has served 41 plus years. He was transferred from the juvenile facility to an adult prison and has been there ever since. I believe this case is a prime example of "OVER-PUNISHMENT," and that Mr. Odell should be set free. He is now 57 years old. The Governor of the State of Maryland and the ACLU have also received correspondence regarding this case.

Posted by: Priscilla Bey | Dec 7, 2016 11:21:44 PM

Must see disparity of sentence www.freedomforsholam.com

Posted by: Joel | Feb 12, 2018 4:55:56 PM

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