Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

August 15, 2013

House of Burgess: You are never, ever getting out

Judges hand out unthinkably long sentences.

By Rob Burgess
Tribune columnist

— On July 26, Ariel Castro pleaded guilty to 937 of the 977 charges against him in connection with the kidnappings of Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight in Cleveland. On Aug. 1, he was subsequently sentenced to life in prison, plus 1,000 years.

Two days earlier, in Fort Meade, Md., Pfc. Bradley Manning was found not guilty of “aiding the enemy” after he provided WikiLeaks with multitudes of classified documents. “But the judge in the court-martial, Col. Denise R. Lind, convicted Private Manning of six counts of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and most of the other crimes he was charged with,” reported Charlie Savage in The New York Times on July 30. “He faces a theoretical maximum sentence of 136 years in prison, although legal experts said the actual term was likely to be much shorter.”

These two recent, high-profile legal cases reminded me of a long-standing gripe I’ve had with the legal system: the handing down of inconceivably long sentences. In the wake of the Castro sentence, Justin Peters wrote a fascinating post for Slate’s Crime blog about the history of these Methuselah-length punishments. These cases included:

-Mass murderer Richard Speck, who was sentenced to between 400 and 1,200 years in prison in 1972.

-Murderer Dudley Wayne Kyzer, who was given two life sentences (don’t ask me how that’s supposed to work) plus 10,000 years in prison in 1981.

-Child rapist Charles Scott Robinson, who was given a whopping 30,000-year sentence in 1994.

“It’s usually because the death penalty isn’t an option, and because the crime in question is particularly revolting,” wrote Peters on July 31. “‘If we can’t kill you, then we’ll see you rot’ is a common theme when it comes to long sentences.” If all these judges meant to do was communicate the idea of someone never having any hope of leaving prison, I can see that. But we’re basing this on our current understanding of how long a person could possibly live. Currently, the oldest documented person to ever live was a French woman named Jeanne Calment, who died at age 122 years, 164 days.

Today, the average life expectancy worldwide is in the upper 60s, but that’s more than double what it was less than 100 years ago, according to the CIA World Factbook. And with scientific advancements being what they are, there’s no reason to think those numbers will stop climbing.

Imagine, for example, if science allowed Castro to actually live 1,000-plus years on top of the 53 he’s already been through. We’d have to let him go at that point, right? I mean, he did the time. Besides, wouldn't forcing someone, regardless of their crime, to actually spend 10 centuries in lock-up necessarily violate the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution which bans “cruel and unusual punishment?" Really think about how both cruel and unusual someone spending 100 decades in isolation would be, were it possible, regardless of their offenses.

Another problem I have is terminology. In Castro’s case, he was sentenced to life even before we get to the 1,000 years. Let’s talk about the “life” part first. “Life” should mean life. Period. Obviously, “life” does not mean life because the judge felt the need to tack on the extra millennium. The first order of business would be to change what we now know as “life” to something closer to the truth, like “a very long time.” Or, if we want to leave the word “life” alone, we could create a new category of sentence: “Never.” As in: “I know we said 'life' before, but this time we really mean business. You are never leaving prison.”

It reminds me of the billion-year contracts members of the Church of Scientology are required to sign to be a part of the Sea Org, the group’s elite private naval force. Why stop at a billion? Make it a trillion while you’re at it, I always thought. Words have power, but only if they actually mean something. And if they do stand for an idea, let’s make sure we’re actually comfortable with the implications.

Rob Burgess, Tribune night editor, may be reached by calling 765-454-8577, via email at rob.burgess@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/robaburg.