26 Years in Prison is Too Long

By · Thursday, March 12th, 2009

Maria Iniguez, a college student studying criminal justice, expressed her beliefs that a judge’s political leanings could influence a sentence imposed. She believed that judges espousing liberal philosophies imposed lighter sentences than conservative judges. That theory may not be as clear cut as it would seem on the surface.

In the mid-1980s, legislators passed laws that removed considerable amounts of discretion from judges. This was especially true in the federal system. Rather than allowing judges the discretion to use their wisdom and discretion in determining what length of sentence would be appropriate for an individual offender, Congress established a rigid grid that removed considerable amounts of discretion from sentencing judges. More than the judge, the prosecutor determined an offender’s sentence by determining which offenses to charge.

Those sentencing laws have been challenged repeatedly over the past two decades. Many judges, both conservative and liberal, have protested and some have resigned because they believed the current sentencing laws spread injustice. In general, I would agree with Maria that liberals have more faith in the power of each individual’s capacity to change, while conservatives believe that severe punishments represent the best way to keep society safe. Yet current sentencing laws place more power in the hands of prosecutors than judges. They determine the sentence when they decide which charges to bring.

Maria asked whether I thought the sentence I received was reasonable for the type of crime I committed. I have been incarcerated since 1987, and the sentence I received does not have me scheduled for release until 2013. I do not think 26 years in prison is a reasonable sentence for a nonviolent offender who was convicted for selling cocaine to consenting adults.

Obviously, I respond to Maria’s question from a biased perspective. After more than 21 years in prison, I want to resume my life in the broader society. I do not even remember the crimes for which I’m serving time, and I do not see how more years in prison serve the interests of justice. The sentence I serve has been overkill, and it does not advance our society. It feels especially egregious in light of the comparatively minimal sentences that white-collar offenders serve for defrauding victims of millions of dollars.

My presentence investigation officer recommended a term that would have required me to serve 10 years in prison. That sentence seemed reasonable considering that I had never been to prison before and that I did not have a history of violence. By the time I served 10 years, I had earned an undergraduate and a graduate degree. I was as ready as I ever would be to return to society. The laws under which I was convicted, however, would not permit my release. Instead, I had to serve 16 more years. That did not seem just, especially when I saw violent, repeat offenders, and offenders who made real victims of others serve much less time.

I appreciate Maria giving me this opportunity to respond to her questions.

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