Extreme Sentencing

Snatching a purse off the arm of an elderly woman is one of the nastier offenses I can think of – the kind of thing that might make you shake your head and say to yourself “I hope whoever did that gets what’s coming to him.” And then you think for a second about just what he ought to have coming to him: community service, maybe – or even a night in jail. Stealing from an old lady is pretty mean, after all, and you’d want whoever did it to learn a lesson.

I guess that’s what the state of Texas was thinking when it sentenced Willie James Sauls last week for that very crime. Except in this case, apparently the lesson Texas wants us all to learn is “we don’t believe in rehabilitation” – for the crime of stealing a purse, Sauls was sentenced to 45 years in prison. The prosecutors in the case justified the long sentence by pointing out that Sauls has prior convictions and that he "already had chances to address the issues with his behavior." And with that, they decided this purse snatcher should be locked in prison until he’s 82.

Also in Texas, in 2010, Larry Dayries stole a tuna sandwich from Whole Foods while wielding a knife. He had prior convictions for burglary and theft, so the sandwich incident landed him a 70-year sentence. Larry will be 111 at the end of his sentence.

Down the road in Mississippi, Anthony Crutcher is serving a 60-year sentence for selling $40 worth of cocaine. Anthony was sentenced under Mississippi’s habitual offender laws; his two prior convictions were also nonviolent, minor drug crimes. Anthony is due out of prison a month after his 101st birthday.

Sauls, Dayries and Crutcher are not anomalies – in fact, they are more like the rule. Since 1990, the average length of prison sentences in the U.S. has increased by 36 percent. Long sentences for non-violent first offenses, coupled with laws mandating increased penalties for repeat offenders, mean our prisons are more crowded than ever – even as crime rates have fallen.

Some might argue that these extreme sentencing policies would be justified by their effectiveness at dissuading would-be criminals. But that’s not the case. A 2003 review of the research on sentence severity and crime rates concluded that “sentencing severity has no effect on the level of crime in society.” And in 2005, researchers at California’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the state’s notoriously punitive three strikes law, which will send a third-time felony offender to prison for 25 years to life even for a nonviolent offense, has no clear effect on crime rates in the state.

As the U.S. has doubled down on tough sentencing, we’ve diverged sharply from much of the developed world. In Canada, the Supreme Court declared a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for importing narcotics to be cruel and unusual punishment; in the U.S., selling a couple ounces of methamphetamine carries at least a ten-year sentence. In France, Italy and Germany, all prisoners serving life sentences have a right to be reviewed for potential release; in the U.S., there are 41,000 people serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. And the U.S. is one of only 33 countries with mandatory increased penalties for offenders with prior convictions – alone with Japan in representing the developed world.

The U.S. incarcerates more people – in absolute numbers and per capita – than any other nation in the world, including the far more populous China and Russia. And, it seems, we incarcerate them for far longer. The dramatic, unprecedented rise in incarceration rates and lengths should be a source of great concern to all Americans: this lock-down mentality costs us dearly in freedom and tax dollars, but it doesn’t make us safer.

While bipartisan lawmakers have been willing to reform some parole and probation laws recently, there has been less political will to engage in meaningful sentencing reform. And yet we know that sentencing reform is essential to bringing down the number of people in our prisons and the associated costs. States like New York that have passed real sentencing reform have seen prison populations and crime rates go down significantly and stay down.

It is time for the U.S. to commit to real sentencing reform. We should stop jailing people for low-level offenses and reduce the number of people who needlessly enter prison in the first place; shrink the existing prison population by offering opportunities for ready prisoners to re-enter society; and in the meantime seek out more effective alternatives to incarceration like drug courts and work programs that are more effective at rehabilitation and reducing recidivism than lengthy sentences.

Learn more about overincarceration: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

View comments (6)
Read the Terms of Use


So basically what you're saying here is that these men who have committed and been convicted several times before deserve yet another chance? Forget that, they had their chances to rehabilitate themselves and chose to commit more crimes and of the ones they were convicted of how many do you think they got away with? Chances are if you add up all the times they got away with a crime they're sentences are probably light. There was a simple solution for them to stay out of prison, don't commit crimes.


It is so sad that we are willing to pay to keep human beings locked up for their entire life but not able to help people get jobs, health care, mental health treatment or even help people keep their homes.


But if we do that, how will the poor private prison industry survive? Aren't they too big to fail?


@Cheryl: Also, the proven fact that helping people get jobs, health care, mental health treatment, and protection against predatory financial and business practices reduces the causes that people end up in prison in the first place? No, far better to screw people over with open-season no-regulation-for-rich-people capitalism and then feel smug and self-righteous when those less fortunate "get what they deserve", patting themselves on the back for being so much better by default than those worms--or so they tell themselves. Some people love to feel good about themselves while doing nothing to earn that feeling, through the simple and wonderfully distracting act of shadenfreude, and the authoritarians pushing for corporate feudalism will deliver that distraction as long as it works.

What these poor fools fail to realize, as they celebrate their own self-proclaimed superiority, is that they're next on the chopping block. The wave of inequity is not going to stop at "those worms"--it's going to wash even further to create the feudal theocracy that was the intention the entire time. "Then they came for me"? You betcha.

@Anonymous 1: You are completely devoid of empathy, intelligence, or any facts. Your kind of thinking is why this country is circling the drain, as has been proven time and time again and ignored by self-satisfied anti-freedom authoritarian cheerleaders with no spark of humanity or decency or concern for reality. Educate yourself honestly, and somewhere besides authoritarian ignorance-manufacturers like Fox News and World Net Daily.


People who read this just don't get it. The issue is not about turning your head the other way when crime happens. It is simply having much shorter sentences across the board. Stop with the 50 years in prison for stealing a sandwich insanity. Stop this mentality of "he got what he deserved". No he didn't, it was way overboard. One problem is that most people who commit crime X will be charged of crime X+1 which is the next level more serious crime. Misdemeanors become felonies. Felonies become capital crimes. Combine overcharging with too long minimum and maximum sentences and you have the formula for lifelong incarceration for simply stealing food in your formative years of life or getting into a brawl with someone who picks a fight. Overcharging is a common practice by public prosecutors. Overcharging is unethical and unfair. The overcharging is unfair against poor people because of the mismatch in prosecutor and defense skill levels. The District Attorney is by default the highest skilled and payed layer in the city. The appointed 'free' defense lawyer is the least skilled lawyer by simple free market driven logic (capitalism). It is by definition an mismatch of grave proportions. Poor people in USA gets the shaft. Everybody pays for this in terms of cost of incarceration and in terms of recidivism because the incorrect sentencing leads to convicts who can never do any normal work anymore. So in the long run small crimes becomes life in prison due to the system and the people who echoes 'he got what he deserved'. A stolen sandwich will cost millions of dollars. I think it is truly a crime against the citizens that there is no financial accountability in the criminal justice system. There are no published statistics of cost. Even worse: no warning of predictable escalation of cost and severity in the future due to policies applied today. The 'wielding a knife' to walk out with a sandwich from grocery store. Use of a deadly weapon to postpone the next (may I remind you long) incarceration. It is all upside down. Islam says cut the hand of the thief, but this would mean the hand of the prosecutor who costs the society millions of dollars. It is predictable that when all this reaches a 'critical mass' the result is complete destruction of social order and structure. The 'peace officers' around USA will by nature of man and necessity turn into the 'Judge Dredd' as envisioned by John Wagners back in 1977. This is what we will face if there is no review of what is wrong right now.


An interesting article: The Legal Penalty for Stealing. Answered by Shaykh Muhammad ibn Adam al-Kawthari. The considerations as to when the hand of a thief is to be cut. Many would think the Sharia law is barbaric and brutal and senseless. I argue that the police, public prosecutors and judges could become more responsible not only for the current day law an order, but also the predictable future outcome for of yesterdays and today policies.

Stay Informed