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The crimes are not any worse than they used to be. They run, as crimes do, from the banal to the barbarous. But punishment seems to have taken on a life of its own.

There are people serving more than twenty years for nonviolent drug offenses. There are people serving more than thirty years for car theft, burglary, and unarmed robbery--crimes for which a harsh sentence used to be ten years. One Oklahoma woman is serving a thirty-five year sentence for "till-tapping"--stealing money out of cash registers--when she was in the throes of a heroin addiction. It is impossible to estimate the number of middle-aged prisoners who are still serving time for crimes committed when they were teenagers.

Together with increased criminal sentences, the demise of parole also serves the prison industry. In the states that still have parole, prisoners--especially those convicted of violent offenses--are seldom released on their minimum date. Executive clemency--through which a governor or the President of the United States commutes a sentence or grants a pardon--is an elusive dream for most prisoners.

Publication Citation

18 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol'y 451-463 (2004)