The current insanity of life sentences should be familiar to everyone. Three strikes laws have stranded thousands of low level offenders in prison for life.
Back in the day, “life” in prison meant roughly 15 years. Yet as Adam
thousands of incarcerated men and women are on course to spend the rest of their lives—large fractions of a century—behind bars as parole boards take their life sentences far more literally than the judges who sentenced them ever intended. I can hear the protestations already: “Life means life.”
But that’s not so clear. For a long period in American history, sentences were often one day to life. Yup. One day to life. The faster you rehabilitated, the
faster you were freed. Irrespective of the severity of the crime. This system of indeterminate sentences left many people uncomfortable — so much power concentrated in the hands of a judge and so little to guide him. But still.
Life has rarely—indeed, until recently, virtually never—meant an entire life in
But Liptak tells us there’s a new twist:
A federal judge in Detroit last month [ruled] that the state had
violated the ex post facto clause of the Constitution when it changed
the parole rules. The clause says the government cannot increase
Ironically, the change in parole rules basically politicized the parole
board and so indirectly made paroles for lifers 25 times rarer (if my
math served me well, which it doesn’t always). This has been in few places clearer than in New York, where Pataki’s parole board refused to parole people who had committed violent crimes, no matter how clean their records during incarceration.
At $40,000 per convict per year, you’d think states might just stress the
spirit rather than the letter of the sentence. When else could the state
of Michigan save $20 million a year by showing a little sensibility and a
modicum of compassion?