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August 12, 2022

"The Arbery case is heinous, but his killers’ sentences are extreme"

The title of this post is the headline of this notable new Washington Post commentary (which, as of noon Friday already prompted well over 3000 comments). The piece is authored by David Singleton, and I recommend it in full. Here are excerpts:

As a human being, I felt nauseated watching the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot to death by three White men who had hunted him down as he jogged through a Brunswick, Ga., neighborhood.  As a Black man, I feared that Arbery’s killers would escape justice before an almost all-White jury in a state court.  And as a political progressive committed to dismantling white supremacy, I was relieved when the jury found Arbery’s killers guilty of murder.

Yet the punishments the three men received — in the state case, life in prison for William “Roddie” Bryan, who joined the pursuit of Arbery and recorded the incident with his cellphone, and life in prison without parole for Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who fired the fatal shots; and just this week in the federal case, two more life sentences plus additional years for the McMichaels and 35 years for Bryan — left me questioning whether such lengthy sentences are what justice requires.  As a former public defender who now works to end mass incarceration and the extreme sentences that contribute to it, I believe the answer is clear: no....

Contrary to what many believe, mass incarceration is not the result of locking lots of people up for low-level, nonviolent crimes.  According to such sentencing experts as Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, life and other extreme sentences are the real drivers of the 500 percent increase in the prison population over the past 40 years.  In their book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” Mauer and Nellis note that one out of seven people in prison in the United States has been sentenced to life.  They say that lengthy sentences make no sense from a public safety perspective, given that most people age out of committing violent crimes by their mid-20s. Additionally, continuing to imprison people long past the time when they can be safely released is expensive, especially when they are elderly.

But the economic costs of mass incarceration are not the only costs.  To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, people should not be defined forever by the worst things they’ve done.  But a life sentence, especially life without parole, does just that.  When we keep people incarcerated who have transformed themselves behind bars, are no longer dangerous, and have the potential to be productive citizens, we all lose....

If we are to end mass incarceration, state and federal authorities must eliminate such draconian punishment and enact laws that allow judges to revisit sentences based on the incarcerated person’s demonstrated rehabilitation and fitness to live in society.  Meanwhile, although I am relieved that Arbery’s murderers are being held accountable, I hope they will someday be released — after they have served an appropriate period of their sentences and demonstrated their fitness to return to society.

Prior related posts:

August 12, 2022 at 12:27 PM | Permalink

Comments

Age out of violence by their mid 20's?? When I did time in a federal prison, I would say that 1) there were very few inmates in their mid 20's and 2) I have little confidence that the the other inmates who were admitted for violent crimes were any more likely to go straight than the younger ones -- with the exception of men past the age of 45.

However, I do agree with the general conclusion of the article that there must be a way for men to demonstrate their "redemption" and earn there way back into society -- with the occasional exception for true psychopaths.

Posted by: chris boys | Aug 14, 2022 2:44:49 AM

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