Editorially, The Wall Street Journal has long been concerned about the overly long prison sentences that have become the norm in our American justice system. And in its February 9, 2019 issue, the Journal offers a piece by a state trial judge in Denver that points up the folly of “the American epidemic of overly long prison sentences.”
Judge Morris Hoffman notes that “the penitentiary wasn’t intended to be a criminal warehouse. Criminals were expected to work, pray and think about their crimes – to be penitent about them – in a kind of moral rehabilitation.”
Yet today “America leads the Western world in average length of prison sentences, at 63 months. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Canada’s average is four months, Finland’s 10, Germany’s 12 and even rugged individualistic Australia’s is just 36.” American lawmakers seem to have become infected with a throw-away-the-key approach to criminal justice.
What occurs when inmates recognize the folly of their actions yet still have years, maybe many more years, to rue their mistakes? Very likely, an abuse of human potential, of the ability of predominately younger people (mostly men) to learn from their mistakes and start anew. Would all be so chastened if released earlier? Maybe not. But most, we’d assume, would.
America shouldn’t be known for warehousing criminals but for seeking to understand and possibly mitigate the circumstances that produce them. Is this mistaken idealism? No, it’s fairness in the face of circumstances, in many cases, that even criminals can be expected to brood about.
“Note a day passes,” Judge Hoffman writes, “that I don’t think of that young robber I sentenced so long ago. As state and federal legislators ponder their next moves after the First Step Act, they should consider lowering historically extreme sentences for some offenses, including violent ones. It would not only be sensible public policy but would also help return our criminal law to its moral roots.”
“Our prisons are groaning because of long sentences, not large numbers of short ones.” Think about that.