Judge Posner Ponders 'Wisdom' of Long Prison Sentences

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on December 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Judge Richard Posner is famous in the legal world for issuing philosophical court opinions. This time, Posner has pontificated about long prison terms that end up being "de facto life sentences."

Poser serves on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently considered the appeal of David Michael Craig. Craig challenged his sentence which included a 30-year sentence and three concurrent 20-year sentences, to be served after the first 30 years.

That means Craig, 49, will be in prison for 50 years. His crime was heinous, but Posner pondered whether the punishment still fit the crime.

To be clear, Craig arguably deserved his punishment and perhaps even more. He was convicted of four counts of producing child pornography after he forced a friend's daughter to be photographed in sexually explicit poses from the ages of 11 to 14.

During sentencing, a convicted criminal is generally given a separate sentence for each count he's charged with. If he's been charged with four crimes, that means four separate sentences.

But judges can decide whether a criminal will serve those sentences concurrently (meaning at the same time), or consecutively (one after the other).

Consecutive sentences can effectively lengthen an inmate's term in prison. That's what Posner is taking issue with.

Sentencing guidelines wouldn't permit the judge in Craig's case to issue a life sentence, but Posner noted that what Craig got was a "de facto life sentence." He'll be 96 once he serves all of his time.

There are some reasons for long sentences to be served concurrently. If the goal of prison is to punish the criminal, then this sentence certainly fits the bill. It also likely gives some measure of comfort to the victim to know Craig will likely die behind bars before his sentences are complete.

But there's also a cost to that length of imprisonment, as Posner pointed out in his separate ruling. It's expensive to incarcerate elderly prisoners since their medical care is guaranteed. That cost is paid by taxpayers.

While Posner eventually concludes that Craig's punishment is allowable, Posner does question whether super-long sentences are a good idea.

His separate writing admonishes judges to consider the long-term costs of extremely long sentences, compared to the actual benefit they may have for society.

Of course, all that pontificating doesn't make any practical difference to Craig's sentence, but Posner's point is that it's worth thinking about. Tell us what you think on our Facebook and Google+ pages.

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