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August 15, 2013

House of Burgess: You are never, ever getting out

Judges hand out unthinkably long sentences.

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.

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