What’s in a 20-Year Sentence for Jose Torres?
March 2, 2017 (Fault Lines) – Two seemingly contradictory things are true of Kayla Norton and Jose Torres. First, they engaged in an appalling array of abusive conduct across two counties. Second, the sentences they received for their conduct seem excessive.
When the pair was sentenced on Monday, Judge McClain had a litany of offenses to support his decision. As part of a Confederate-flag-flying motorcade, they threatened African American motorists and shoppers. On at least one occasion those threats appear to have involved a firearm.
For the cherry on top, their motorcade made a pit stop to throw racial epithets and threats at people attending an eight-year-old’s birthday party. They did all of this a mere month after Dylan Roof killed nine African Americans in a Charleston Church.
Waving a gun and a Confederate flag around an African American birthday party just one month after a mass shooting, while shouting that you’re going to kill people, is about as clear a threat as a threat can be. Appropriately, Norton and Torres promptly faced moral condemnation through a criminal sanction. Here is where the story gets a little more complicated.
Torres received a 20-year sentence, 13 of which will be served in prison. Norton got 15 years, and she will serve 6 in prison. For some, this is justice. The two bigots dished it out and then cried at sentencing because they couldn’t take it.
For those concerned about America’s massive and seemingly intractable prison population, however, it may be worth asking if double-digit sentences for offenses that, to paraphrase Jefferson, neither broke legs nor picked pockets, is a sign that something is awry with the nation’s laws.
When it comes to the developed world, the United States leads the pack in sentence lengths. In Germany, for example, 75 percent of sentences were for one year or less. That goes up to 92 percent for sentences of two years or less. In contrast, the average U.S. sentence is three years. The U.S. is also the only nation that regularly sentences children to life without parole.
How this happened is no mystery. As Julie Stewart of Families against Mandatory Minimums notes, passing stiffer sentences is politicians’ Pavlovian response to crime. Combine that with the challenge of passing anything that reduces sentences, and it’s easy to see how sentence length becomes a one-way journey up.
Whether these ever-increasing sentences are a good idea is a separate question. Prison sentences have two common rationales: rehabilitation and retribution. U.S. prisons are remarkably inept at rehabilitation. People going to state prisons have a 68 percent recidivism rate after three years, and about half of people in federal prison will recidivate over eight years. Particularly for Norton and Torres’s racially motivated crimes, it is doubtful that putting someone in the same kind of institutions that spawned and sustain the Aryan Brotherhood is likely to produce a revelation in their world view.
For some though, this doesn’t matter because the primary goal is not rehabilitation, but retribution. By punishing Torres and Norton, society extracts a moral penance equal to the heinousness of their acts. But what is an equal penance? In the U.S., sentences are often seen as light if they don’t break double digits. But consider what a six-year prison sentence actually means.
If a person has kids, there’s a good chance that even this “light” sentence means that they will miss a major milestone or two. In the six years of Norton’s prison term, someone could complete college and be two years into a career. People complete high school, graduate from college, find love, and put down their first house payment in the time it will take Torres to serve his bit.
Instead of doing any of that, Torres will restart his life at 39 with the resume of a 26-year-old. It’s worse actually, since an employer is probably more likely to hire a 26-year-old than a 39-year-old with a record. He and Norton will miss years with their children and once they get out, they may lose everything from public assistance (which they’ll probably need after years of not working) to voting rights.
Maybe Torres’s sentence makes sense. There are no easy answers for what punishment is enough, and given his behavior and its timing, one could certainly make the case that he deserves every bit of what he got.
But consider that in Georgia, the twenty years he got is the same as the maximum sentence for child molestation or aggravated battery (crippling a limb or disfiguring someone,) though about five years less than the penalty for selling, manufacturing or possessing 28 grams of heroin. As the number of offences carrying 20 years increases, one gets the impression of a system unmoored from any coherent retributive or rehabilitate rationale, that blindly lashes out with ever-increasing brutality without thinking about what losing 20 years actually means.
Jose Torres and Kayla Norton committed a disgraceful act. But to hand out a sentence comparable to what one might get for molesting a child, or crippling someone for life, seems more indicative of a justice system that has lost its perspective than one concerned with any kind of moral theory of punishment.