Too Many Life Sentences

I wasn't under any illusions about what the sentence would be. My client was convicted of shooting a man in a drive-by shooting, killing him almost instantly. There were other charges pending, charges involving other shootings. The maximum sentence for murder was 60 years. We expected the full monty.

The judge did not disappoint; even the prosecution performed on cue, calling my client a coward. The victim's mother urged the maximum, even more—100 years would not be enough, she said.

Sixty years it was, when all was said and done.

What a ridiculous farce.

I asked for the mandatory minimum of 25 years, not expecting to get it, but to hold in relief the savagery of what we call justice in our courts. After all, Norway's Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who in 2011 gunned down 77 people, most of them children, was sentenced to all of 21 years. In Bali recently, Tommy Schaefer, an American, was sentenced to 18 years for beating his girlfriend's mother to death.

What we do to young people in this country in the name of justice is repugnant.

There's something seriously wrong with the American criminal justice system. We imprison more people per 100,000-population than any other nation. Our sentences are far longer than those imposed elsewhere. We're a gaudy prison on a hill.

But don't take my word for it. I am a ham-and-egg practitioner in a small boutique firm. Listen to the National Research Council, which recently called our prison system "historically and internationally unique." According to the Sentencing Project, a reform group, there are 160,000 people serving life sentences in U.S. prisons. That is one of every nine inmates. This number excludes the thousands more inmates serving life sentences of 50 years or more.

To get a better sense of how far out of line our sentencing practices are, consider the following: In 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that life sentences without the possibility of parole violated fundamental human rights. At the time of that ruling, there were 49 individuals serving such prison terms in Europe, compared with 49,000 serving life without parole in the United States, according to the Sentencing Project.

Many lifers are now aging in warehouses decades after the events that landed them in prison, and well after the actual threat they poses to society at large has passed. It's not enough to take aim at isolated mandatory minimum sentences as a means of engaging in sentencing reform. We need to focus on maximum sentences as well.

Why not a presumption that any sentence in excess of 20 years is excessive? Yes, there may be special cases requiring more time—but those cases should be evaluated at the 20-year mark. Throwing the book at folks at the time of a plea or verdict is simply too easy—it's like throwing away old shoes.

Of course, the idea that sentences are too long will offend victims and their advocates. But the law has long recognized that no one can be a judge in his own case. Give victims a right to be heard, fine. But let's not sell justice on the cheap to the most aggrieved person in the room.

My client was 29 when he was sentenced to serve 60 years. He was in his early 20s when the events for which he was convicted took place. The notion that he should be isolated forever for these charges stuns me. We don't restore the dead by torturing the living—that's a species of barbarism.

"How do you do it?" a judge once asked, referring to the defense of those charged with serious crimes. Behold the sentences, I should have replied: How can one do anything other than defend against the unreasoning blindness of the state's minions?


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© Norm Pattis is represented by Elite Lawyer Management, managing agents for Exceptional American Lawyers
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