Why are some prison sentences so long?

Ariel Castro After sentencing, the judge told Ariel Castro he was too dangerous to ever be released

Kidnapper and rapist Ariel Castro has been sentenced to life without parole plus 1,000 years. What's the point in extending a prison term beyond a person's lifetime, asks Tom Geoghegan.

Sentencing is not just about determining how long someone should be behind bars, it also has a symbolic, theatrical function, says Franklin Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, who has written extensively about deterrents.

"In sentencing Bernie Madoff [to 150 years for fraud], what the judge wants to be telling him is 'you are really a bad person.' And for this purpose, the number of years can be endlessly elastic."

How much symbolic denunciation plays a part can depend on many things, such as media coverage or the nature of an offence, but the tension between these two radically different functions - the symbolic and practical - is a feature of modern criminal justice systems, he says, and not just in the US. There was a famous case in Spain where a fraudster received a 2,000-year sentence.

Parole means the sentence can be adjusted at a later date. But it has been eliminated for life sentences in many parts of the country.

Some long US sentences

Bernie Madoff
  • 150 years: Bernie Madoff (pic), fraud, 2009
  • 835 years: Shalom Weiss, fraud, 2000
  • 957 years: Jeffrey Dahmer, serial killer, 1992
  • 1,000 years: Peter Mallory, child sexual exploitation, 2013
  • Life plus 1,000 years: Ariel Castro, rape and kidnap, 2013

Most criminal prosecutions in the US are brought by the state, so there can be huge variations in sentencing. Judges are constrained by a statutory range but, depending on the crime, that could be very broad or have no maximum sentence at all.

Fraud against one person can involve multiple crimes like false statements, wire fraud and theft, so consecutive sentences for each charge can fast add up. The same goes for crimes involving a computer, like child pornography, because each image could be a separate count. Minor misdemeanours are more likely to result in concurrent sentences.

For victims of crime and their loved ones there is nothing problematic about a very long sentence. Indeed, a sentence that increases with each guilty charge is a way of telling each victim that they matter.

Some long sentences are an alternative to the death penalty. Dudley Wayne Kyzer is serving two life terms plus 10,000 years for a triple murder he committed in the 1970s. After four years on death row, he was given a second trial because the death penalty in Alabama was at the time deemed unconstitutional.

Tommy Smith was Tuscaloosa County Assistant District Attorney when he persuaded the trial judge to impose the long sentence as an alternative. "The jury sent a message. They don't want him released," he said. Kyzer has been denied parole nine times.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Why does a person found guilty of multiple offences seems to serve the sentence for each offence concurrently and not consecutively. Stuart Hall was found guilty of many offences for which he received 15 months each I believe, but as he was ordered to serve the concurrently his sentence was only 15 months until the appeal when one of the sentences was changed to run consecutively.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.


    the death sentance might not be the best way to reduce crime, but it's a hell of a lot cheaper than keeping someone locked up with clean clothes, electricity and 3 meals a day for 40+ years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    When Canada repealed the DP convictions went up. Why? Because many people are reluctant to send people to their deaths, even when they know they are guilty. Just throwing that in the mix.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    When will politicians become personally liable for what is done 'in our name' ?

    And what about political acts of treason ?
    What should be their sentence ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    109. Major Tom - great thinking! Why not simply apply the death penalty to any misdemeanour...

    Seriously, anyone who has even a passing interest in this subject will know, as an irrefutable fact, that the death penalty is not an effective means of lowering violent crime. All the comments in support of it are simply stultifyingly misinformed.


Comments 5 of 118


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