For those inclined to make excuses for violent criminals, age is always an excuse for a short sentence. If the thug is young, they say, his sentence should be shortened because young people are impulsive and their brains haven’t finished developing. (See, e.g., Miller v. Alabama, 132 S.Ct. 1455 (2011) (5-to-4 Supreme Court decision overturning mandatory life without parole for 17-year-olds who commit murder)).
But if the thug is older, they say his sentence should be shortened because crime rates go down after people’s brains finish developing and they get less impulsive, meaning that a thug will “age out of crime” before too many years pass. For example, a federal judge in Chicago recently claimed there is a “need to curtail imprisonment of violent offenders,” since “many violent offenders … age out of crime, often as early as their mid- to late-twenties — ‘by the time a person in his 30s has generated a long criminal history suggesting that he poses a continuing risk, he is likely to have started ‘aging out’ of crime, violent behavior in particular.’” (See United States v. Moore, 851 F.3d 666, 676 (7th Cir. 2017) (Posner, J., dissenting) (quoting the claims of Fordham Law Professor John Pfaff)).
This line of thinking completely ignores the need to deter crime in the first place. The purpose of the criminal justice system is not primarily to rehabilitate offenders (which can never be done with any assurance, since many “model” prisoners return to crime after being released). Its primary purpose is to protect the innocent, by deterring criminals from committing crimes in the first place, regardless of whether they are rehabilitated later. This is something that soft-on-crime judges simply ignore.
A penalty that does nothing to rehabilitate a criminal can nevertheless be justified because it saves many lives. Consider the death penalty. A number of researchers have concluded that the death penalty saves lives by deterring murder more effectively than mere imprisonment. As the Associated Press noted in 2007, “Each execution deters an average of 18 murders, according to a 2003 nationwide study by professors at Emory University. (Other studies have estimated the deterred murders per execution at three, five and 14).” Additional studies are described by David Mulhausen of the Heritage Foundation at this link. For example, he notes that “two studies by Paul R. Zimmerman, a Federal Communications Commission economist, also support the deterrent effect of capital punishment….each additional execution, on average, results in 14 fewer murders.”
But deterrence is not the only way the death penalty saves innocent life. It also prevents murderers from being able to commit more murders or other crimes while in prison. A 2016 Washington Post article gave the example of a serial killer who “killed two senior citizens, got locked up,” killed his cellmate, and then “tried to extort money” from an elderly woman:
Alone in his prison cell, Darren Witmer pulled out a piece of paper and tried a new way to steal someone’s money.
“May this letter reach your hands with a welcoming comfort,” he wrote last year to a 75-year-old woman living by herself north of Washington.
Witmer, 45, figured he had nothing to lose.
He was serving three life sentences in Maryland for killing three people. In 1994, Witmer broke into the Frederick, Md., apartment of an 83-year-old veteran and beat him to death for $300. Days later, he forced a 78-year-old man in the same town to write a check for $1,000 before he killed him with a small ice chipper. In prison, Witmer strangled his cellmate.
Now, writing his letter — to a stranger whose address he’d swiped from his dead cellmate’s records — Witmer got to his point.
He had “people in position” ready to slip into the woman’s home, carry her to the trunk of a car, take her to a river and kill her. “Trust me,” Witmer wrote, “you won’t even see it coming.”
But for $700 sent to his prison account, Witmer said, she could avoid death.
The woman called the police. Officers paid Witmer a visit. He was charged with extortion. And in a Rockville courtroom Friday, six years were added atop his life sentences.
These crimes are due to the lack of an effective death penalty. If Witmer had been executed for his first two murders, rather than merely imprisoned, he could not have “strangled his cellmate.” He paid no real penalty for strangling his cellmate, since he was already serving a life sentence for killing two other people, so the life sentence he got for killing his cellmate added nothing to his existing life sentence. And since he is already serving a life sentence, he had “nothing to lose” in seeking to extort money from his elderly victim.
As Ernest van den Haag notes in “Capitol Punishment Saves Innocent Lives,” merely sentencing murderers to prison does not prevent them from killing again: “incarcerated murderers can escape, be released on furlough, or kill other prisoners or prison staff.”
Given how much suffering to the innocents is prevented by punishing violent criminals with harsh sentences, it is apt to say, as a wise federal judge once did, that “He who is kind to the cruel is cruel to the kind.”