It dares not speak its name, that is, because its name is murder.
That is the demonstrated cost of prison sentences that are too short to persuade, or force, offenders to refrain from returning to crime. The case in point, and in the news, is that of Chelsea King, a high school student who was raped and murdered this week. A fellow named John Gardner has been arrested for the crime. At present, there appears to be little realistic doubt of his guilt.
The twist in the case is that Gardner pleaded guilty in 2000 to molesting a 13 year-old girl. Instead of being required to serve the eleven years to which he could have been sentenced, he was given a six year sentence, of which he served five.
The case illuminates two long-running and active themes the defense bar has been pushing. One is that we should substantially reduce prison sentences to save money. The other is that sex offenders are treated too harshly (forced to sleep under a bridge in Miami, etc.), apparently because the country consists of high-handed and puritanical morons.
We now have a case in which these themes were put into action. Gardner's first crime was "merely" molestation and was therefore treated with a lenient attitude (plus actual leniency); his relatively short sentence certainly saved the taxpayers the money they would have had to spend on a longer one.
Was it worth it?
That is the question I have repeatedly posed while debating this case on Sentencing Law and Policy. You will not be surprised to hear that I have not received a single straightforward answer.
For many months now, we have seen one piece after the next about how much money could be saved by shorter sentences -- e.g., early release, more relaxed parole criteria, alternative sentencing from the outset, and so forth. And in all honesty, those making the cost argument have a point. There are sure to be dollars saved, at least in the short run, by reducing the amount of money we spend on prisons.
The problem is that the argument is misleading because of what it omits: the cost of not keeping criminals incarcerated. The argument is made as if recidivism were zero. Indeed, in the blizzard of figures about how much we'd save by prisoner releases, the word "recidivism" scarcely appears, if it appears at all. But a serious look at recidivism is imperative if we are to have anything approaching an honest discussion about shortening sentences.
We can't, and shouldn't, incarcerate for life every potentially dangerous criminal. At the same time, we can't, and shouldn't, give sentences to men like Gardner that don't protect people like Chelsea King. She was the victim of a preventable murder. That is a stain on the system -- a system whose warped version of frugality (or was it "compassion") was to put at risk, with awful results, the life of an innocent person.
As noted, I asked my opponents on Sentencing Law and Policy the question, was it worth it? The reason they don't answer is that any sane or even vaguely moral system resolves uncertainly about recidivism in favor of the future victim, not the criminal. That was not done with Gardner. It saved money, that's for sure. But at a horrendous cost -- the cost that dares not speak its name.