There are many factors that can play a role in criminal sentencing. One key factor, of course, is whether there is a statute imposing a mandatory minimum sentence for a given offense. If a mandatory minimum applies, a judge may have little or no discretion to issue a different sentence.
In other cases, however, judges often have discretion concerning how long a prison sentence will be, within a specified range. Even if federal sentencing guidelines apply, judges have discretion to determine the length of a sentence within the given range.
Recently, a prominent federal judge took the position that judges should be aware of cost considerations when sentencing someone to an extremely lengthy sentence. Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals says judges would be well to distinguish between a "very long" sentence and one that is "super long."
Judge Posner made the statement in an opinion in an appeal of a child pornography conviction. A 46-year-old defendant had been sentenced to 50 years in prison for taking photographs of his sexual assaults on an underage girl.
In his written opinion, Judge Posner cautioned district judges against imposing what he called de facto life sentences. In this context, he noted that the costs of incarcerating an elderly inmate are extremely high. They are in the vicinity of $60,000 to $70,000 per year.
The judge also noted that the likelihood of very elderly offenders committing new offenses is quite low. Sentencing decisions should take account of this, Judge Posner wrote - and of the limits of super long sentences in actually deterring crime effectively.
Source: "Posner Advises Judges to Consider Cost of Imprisoning Elderly When Imposing a 'super long Sentence'," ABA Journal, Debra Cassens Weiss, 12-20-12
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