One editorialist at least had the courage to put it bluntly: Jerry Sandusky deserves 400 years in prison. The writer was outraged that the 68-year-old man received a sentence of only 30 to 60 years in prison after his conviction on 45 counts of child molestation. Sandusky is, so the writer contends, a monster.
I wonder whether another monster isn’t the person calling for a prison sentence impossible to serve. Find me the man or woman who can serve a 400-year sentence, and I will rethink my general skepticism about miracles.
We love prison in this the land of the free. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Put another way, we incarcerate more people per capita than any other nation on Earth.
And prison sentences in the United States are draconian when compared to those in other post-industrial nations. Anders Behring Breivik of Norway went on a rampage on Norway in the summer of 2011, killing nearly 70 people, most of them teenagers. Norwegians were not reported to be up in arms when Mr. Breivik was sentenced to prison for a term of 21 years after being found guilty of the crimes. Such a sentence for so horrible an offense would not be conceivable in the United States.
Why are we in the embrace of this love affair with prison?
I recall standing in the well of a federal court one day years ago. My client was found guilty of murder-for-hire. The government had not elected to seek the death penalty, although it was a capital felony. But it did want him in prison for the rest of his life. The judge obliged.
She did more than oblige, in fact. As she imposed sentence, it became clear that she wanted to stack multiple life terms, one on top of the other, imposing them consecutive to one another. As she piled the second life term on top of the first, or was it the third on top of the second, I turned to the client.
“You know what this means, don’t you?”
He looked at me with a puzzled look, afraid to speak as the judge was talking.
“This means the first couple of times you die, the government has to revive you or the sentence is illegal.”
We both chuckled at the absurdity of it all as the judge went about her work. She paused to shoot a severe look our way, but what, really, could she do?
(The client was stabbed to death in prison not long ago. The government did not revive him. The unserved portion of his sentence hangs in the ether somewhere, confounding those who think the sentence imposed was fair, just and reasonable.)
We are perhaps too quick to ostracize the errant. Do we really believe that a man or woman is simply the sum of their worst moments? Do any of us really believe that we are without sin? I’ve yet to meet the man or woman accused of a crime who did not possess a distinctive human spark.
Aristotle counseled moderation in all things, even in anger. It is appropriate to be angry to the right degree, at the right things, at the right time. The Christians recognize anger as one of the seven deadly sins. We self-righteous harpies calling for savage criminal sentences are sometimes hardly distinguishable from the folks we lock up.
Jerry Sandusky is a child molester. The protection of society requires his isolation. He will spend the rest of his life enduring the punishment his conduct warrants. I get that. But somehow complaining that the man will either drop dead in prison or, perhaps, walk out the prison’s doors at 98 years of age strikes me as downright perverse, even sick.
We’re the land of the free but we’re in love with prisons. Instead of embracing our contradictions, we flee in fear from facing them. Some City on a Hill we’ve created here in paradise.•