Saturday, June 11, 2011

Locked Up, Locked Out

Judges Handing Down Extra-Long Sentences:

Fulton County Judges stacked life sentence after life sentence after life sentence on rapist Marvin Martin three months ago, ensuring that the 33-year-old truck driver will never be free.

He will have to serve 360 years in prison before he can even be considered for parole.

Martin's is an impossible sentence. But it is indicative of the path some judges are now taking, suggesting a lack of trust that their sentences will mean anything if prison crowding continues or if the state's finances force early releases. Or if the presently conservative Pardons and Paroles Board shifts to more liberal stance on crime and punishment.

A sudden "liberal" shift in our politics?

The trend towards longer sentences, in the face of overwhelming evidence that such sentences trivialize crime, cost society needlessly, and produce nothing more than a "predator class" that gets out anyway (yes, Virginia, 98% of persons who go to prison get out, including those with "bowlegged sentences" of 100 years or more), is indicative of the kind of myopia which still infects the politics of punishment.

Judges who are perceived as being weak on crime won't be re-elected, and politicians perceived as the same are dead men walking.

People here still shudder when they think of the political fall out 20+ years ago when the state released inmates in order to stave off a federal law suit.

The last time Georgia tried something drastic was in 1989. Threatened with a lawsuit threat that could have put Georgia's prisons under the control of federal courts, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris created an early release program to buy time until an unprecedented building program effort could be competed. About 8,200 non-violent felons and first-time drug offenders were released early to create room for the more dangerous criminals.

The measure drew criticism from district attorneys and legislators. Twenty-two years later, judges are making sure some of those more dangerous criminals are never set free.

Want to guess what happened to the crime rate in Georgia after the release of those inmates? Correct, property and violent crime rates went down.

Ignoring the social costs of mass imprisonment, the least of which, as we've discussed here at TPE for years now, is producing a "generation incarceration." We can keep the predators locked up and ensure a new class of little predators right behind them to take their place once the older ones die off.

As Jeffrey Reiman put it, in criminal justice and imprisonment, nothing succeeds like failure.

h/t SocProf at Global Sociology for the Bruce Western piece.

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