Prison sentences: Why months rather than years?

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Dear John,

I was just reading an article about a murder trial, and the guilty party was sentenced to “two consecutive 240-month terms.” You can easily do the math and conclude that to be 20 years. Why are sentences expressed in months rather than years? Why not just say “20 years,” instead of having to divide by 12?

Sincerely,

Bewildered Bill

Dear Bill,

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. One of the benefits of this fundamental right is that prisoners are not given too harsh a punishment for their crimes. That is, we do not sentence a person to 19 years on Devil’s Island for stealing a loaf of bread. Also, we do not cut the hands off thieves.

Balanced against the desire to punish humanely is the right of victims to receive justice and the deterrent effect of punishment as an effort to decrease crime. These two counterpoints have resulted in increased sentencing lengths and eventually led to “three strikes laws,” whereby repeat offenders receive life sentences for certain crimes. Interestingly, Washington was the first state to enact such a law, in 1993.

The effort to find balance between the desires to increase or decrease a sentence has been given to a state-authorized commission consisting of 20 members, 16 of whom vote. This commission is appointed by the governor, and members serve three-year terms. The commission publishes a manual each year that informs judges regarding sentencing guidelines that must be followed when sentencing offenders.

This is a statewide publication because having consistent sentencing throughout the state is an important aspect of humane treatment of prisoners. It would probably be a violation of the U.S. Constitution to have two criminals meet at the penitentiary and discover that they did the same basic crime but learn that one received a five-year sentence and the other is in for life.

I have taken a circuitous way of getting to your answer. However, I felt it better to establish a foundational understanding before stating that the reason sentences are given in months rather than years is because the sentencing manual states them in months.

The current manual is 418 pages in length. It attempts to be user-friendly. However, anyone who has ever assembled furniture can probably attest to the limited nature of user-friendliness of manuals, and can extrapolate regarding the accessibility of 418 pages of a manual designed to be read by lawyers.

Reviewing some of the manual in order to answer your question has made me conclude that reading it may in itself be a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Sincerely,

John

John Hartzell is a practicing Walla Walla attorney. No attorney-client relationship is established via this column, which is for educational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice. Any information given is to illustrate basic legal concepts and does not state how any court would decide any matter. Have a question? Ask John at askjohn@wwub.com.

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