The New York Times gives us a story about a lifer in Michigan, Gerald Hessell, who has just been released on parole, many years later than he’d expected. It was the custom in Michigan when he was sentenced, that someone with a life sentence could expect to be paroled in 15 years, give or take, if he kept his nose clean. But Michigan changed its parole system, and Mr Hessell did 31 years instead:
Mr. Hessell was released the other day, thanks in part to a decision from a federal judge in Detroit last month ruling that the state had violated the ex post facto clause of the Constitution when it changed the parole rules. The clause says the government cannot increase punishments retroactively.
Now, early release — perhaps much earlier than what wound up happening — might have been the right answer for Mr Hessell. Yet the case brings up the general issue of what one can, or should, expect from sentences. Should the sentencing judge not be taken at her word? If the sentence is ten years, should the convict not expect to serve ten years? If it’s “life”, why should there be an expectation of ever being free?
Parole is a good idea... but it should be considered a privilege, not an expectation. And yet our expectation for early release is so strong that a federal judge has decided that when the parole system changes, it creates an unconstitutional change in the prisoners’ sentences. That seems wrong to me.
And note, as I say this, that I’m a strong believer in alternative sentences, and in reduced reliance on prison sentences for many crimes.
If a judge doesn’t want a criminal to spend ten years in prison, she shouldn’t hand down a ten-year sentence. If a judge doesn’t intend a life sentence, she shouldn’t give one. And in the end, justice, mercy, fiscal responsibility, or any other consideration might make us decide on parole (or commutation, or pardon)... but it should not be expected, and failure to choose it shouldn’t be considered an ex post facto alteration of the sentence.