Understanding First-Time Offenses

Sensational cases are great for media resources, because they generate controversy. This is especially the case regarding sentencing. If a sentence appears out of tune with the crime involved, it’s a great way to get outrage – and thus, attention – on the inadequacies of the justice system. I was recently reminded of this when I saw Philip DeFranco’s coverage of a case out of Alaska. Here’s the video, starting at his discussion of the case:

To people who are unfamiliar with courts, sentencing, and parole/probation hearings, the sentence for the defendant seems, to put it mildly, unfair. After all, this person got it in his mind to kidnap a woman and convince her she was going to die. Any number of things could have gone wrong. Additionally, it’s hard to ignore the planning and opportunities the defendant ignored to cancel going through with it. If that’s the only view the law takes – and it was the only view for several centuries – the sentence the defendant received doesn’t exactly match the facts of the case.

However, sentencing has received a major overhaul the past few years.
For the longest time, we’ve had a problem in this country for handing out penalties which were harsher than the original crimes might have warranted. Relatively recently, one could see this in a myriad of drug cases. Take Sharanda Jones, for example, who received a life sentence for a first-time charge of possession of cocaine. There’s also Calvin Bryant, who got 17 years for what should have been a 3 year penalty because he was selling drugs in an area deemed a drug-free zone.

In addition to harsh penalties under three strikes laws, there’s been an increase in U.S. prison populations. Currently, the U.S. ranks highest in number of prisoners, and second in rate of prisoners per 100,000 people (see the Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s World Prison Brief at p. 2). Since all of these people in jails and prisons cost money, there’s been a call to reduce sentencing where possible. One of these areas is for first-time offenders.

That reduction has been applied in a lot of places. Take this advice to a person concerning an armed robbery charge in Missouri. Several lawyers commented that many factors can contribute to a reduced sentence, and first-time offense is a factor in that rationale. The big picture here is that sentencing involves a flow chart and list of factors that go into each case, and first-time offenses could possibly reduce the time of a possible sentence.

So, the system can throw the book at the wrong people. Why?
Consider that this Schneider case came a couple years after sentencing reform in Alaska. As recently as 2010, juveniles were getting life in prison for non-murder first-time offenses.* Besides the sentencing reform, why do we have a system which can jail children for life but give an attempted rape-murder a pass?

Part of the problem is that laws like this only get changed when an extreme situation happens. For every Schneider out there, there’s an ensuing Graham who gets a life sentence. When Graham gets attention and (maybe) justice, people like Schneider get to reap the rewards. At the end of the day, Graham still spent his formative years in prison, and Schneider gets actual attention paid to his circumstances.

I should stress that this also happens because of the specific people involved. A lot of decisions in the law still come down to who is in the room that day. For example, if Schneider was in front of a different judge, he might have gotten a harsher sentence. Or maybe if a different prosecutor had shown up, Schneider could have gotten a better deal. Note also that none of this involves talking to the victim or the public at large. Negotiations often occur behind closed doors or in courthouse bathrooms.

TL;DR version: public outrage doesn’t help.
It’s easy to get angry at the Justin Schneiders of the world and demand that gets fixed, but legislators frequently suck at fixing the problem. In the end, the solution just makes it easier to jail other people for stupidly long times. While people might think that tweeting their legislator is helping, there’s a better chance of severely screwing over some other person.

TL;DR – What am I supposed to do, then?
If you are in the mood for sternly worded missives or rants, figure out specifically what you want. For example, in this case, Schneider seems to be a candidate that sex offender registries were designed for. In cases where there’s a dangerous act and evidence that it’s sexually related, there needs to be a way to get that person on the registry even if a plea bargain is struck or the case doesn’t warrant prison time.

*Fun Fact: The State of Florida had to re-sentence a TON of juveniles as a result of Graham v. Florida. I knew of a few of those cases where the prosecution asked for and received sentences in excess of 90 years. Our justice system can help people lose even when they win.