Prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers worry about excessive sentences

A Fulton County judge recently sentenced a man to 360 years in prison on a rape conviction. In DeKalb County, a man convicted of a double murder got two life sentences plus 65 years. In a Fulton County multiple-homicide case, the defendant was sentenced to 485 years in prison, which is the longest sentence currently being served in Georgia.

No one is arguing that dangerous people don’t need to be behind bars, but prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, law professors and even Governor Deal are beginning to worry that a trend toward immense sentences — often handed down to send a message — are starting to twist the criminal justice system away from a rational sentencing policy.

“We need to take a strong look at these sentences that, for the purposes of public relations, have been piled on,” says one University of Georgia law professor. “The trend toward enhanced punishments needs to be weighed against several factors, including costs of confinement as well as the need to shape a sentence which meets confinement objectives without overkill.”

Multi-century criminal sentences probably meant to send a message, but is that message necessary?

While judges are reluctant to discuss their reasons for piling on multiple sentences to reach totals extending beyond a human lifetime, the trend may be related to the nationwide problem of overcrowding in prisons caused by the War on Drugs. The U.S. Supreme Court just ordered the State of California to release 30,000-50,000 prisoners over the next two years in order to deal with overcrowding so bad that it constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. In the 1980s and 90s, Georgia had to release prisoners to avoid a lawsuit over the issue.

Some prosecutors and criminal defense lawyers believe that judges are piling these sentences on so that, should a mass-release of prisoners again be required, the most violent offenders will not be among those let out.

Georgia’s prison system is slightly over capacity now, which has prompted Governor Deal to create a commission to recommend sentencing changes. There are “too many people behind bars,” the Governor has commented. The State Bar of Georgia’s Criminal Justice Reform Committee is working in tandem with the governor’s committee, and the recommendations are due on November 1.

Will stacking sentence upon sentence on the most feared criminal defendants keep them from getting out of prison if the overcrowding gets too bad? Would they be among those let out if they did not receive multi-century sentences? How do you think Georgia should handle overcrowding in prisons?

Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “When sentences span centuries,” Rhonda Cook, June 11, 2011