Extreme Prison Sentences: Legal and Normative Consequences

62 Pages Posted: 7 Nov 2016 Last revised: 6 May 2018

See all articles by Melissa Hamilton

Melissa Hamilton

University of Surrey School of Law

Date Written: November 5, 2016


The American criminal justice system has an obsession with lengthy prison sentences. From theoretical perspectives, harsh penalties may be justified to retributively punish heinous criminals, to incapacitate dangerous people, and to deter potential wrongdoers. But for a penalty to achieve any of these purposes it must still be proportional to the offense and offender. A disproportionately severe sentence is harmful in being unnecessary and tyrannical in nature.

This Article reports on an empirical study of extreme sentences, which is defined to include sentences of imprisonment of at least 200 years. The author compiled an original dataset of extreme sentences issued in the federal sentencing system. Since the year 2000, federal judges sentenced 55 individuals to prison terms ranging from 200 to 1,590 years. At such a length, these sentences may appear irrational as they are beyond any person’s natural lifespan, particularly as the federal system provides no opportunity for parole. Thus, it may be of interest to understand how and why such extraordinary sanctions came to fruition and to confront the consequences thereof in terms of normalizing extreme prison sentences.

The study undertook quantitative and qualitative analyses of a variety of sources related to the cases in the dataset. The sources included statistical databases, case opinions, governmental press releases, and news reports. The study results revealed that the discourses underlying extremely long sentences generally (a) justified them for the theoretical purposes of retribution, incapacitation, and/or deterrence; (b) approved them on proportionality grounds; (c) regarded the penalties as the practical equivalent of life sentences; (d) represented an exclusionist mindset; (e) relied upon dehumanizing caricatures; and (f) presented with cognitive biases, such as anchoring and scaling effects.

In the end, however, the Article still questions whether the extreme nature of these sentences is rational in any circumstance as they represent penalties that no person can possibly complete. And even if a prison term of at least two centuries may be a proper one, the author posits that such a penalty appears disproportionate for multiple cases in the dataset. At least a few of the defendants, for example, were nonviolent, first-time offenders. Further, the federal judiciary’s acceptance of sentences of these extreme lengths has normative consequences that likely will continue to have a ratchet effect in future cases.

Keywords: sentencing, virtual life sentences, retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, anchoring, scaling, consecutive sentences, federal guidelines, dehumanization, proportionality, reasonableness

JEL Classification: K14, K42

Suggested Citation

Hamilton, Melissa, Extreme Prison Sentences: Legal and Normative Consequences (November 5, 2016). 38 Cardozo Law Review 59 (2016), Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2865018

Melissa Hamilton (Contact Author)

University of Surrey School of Law ( email )

United Kingdom

HOME PAGE: http://https://www.surrey.ac.uk/people/melissa-hamilton

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