Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Yes, my childhood nickname was "Split Hair Sarah." But, yes, I really think this hair should be split.

One of my biggest pet peeves (re: criminal law, anyway; I have lots of pet peeves, so must categorize) is the irresponsible way journalists report on criminal sentences.

Generally speaking, when people in this country are convicted of murder, the most common sentence is life in prison. Also generally speaking, most life sentences carry with them parole eligibility. In the state of Kansas, parole eligibility can come at 20 years, 25, 40, or 50. And there are also sentences of life without the possibility of parole (LWOP), but in Kansas, those are only available to defendants over 18 who are convicted of capital murder, so very few defendants get that sentence.

What makes me crazy, though, is that far too many reporters tell the public that the defendant has been sentenced to "20 to life." Or sometimes, it's even worse. Tonight, I saw an article on the murder of the young boy in Brooklyn from last summer. According to the article, the parties are reaching a plea agreement that would subject the defendant to "40 to 60 years in prison." Gah! It didn't take me long to find the New York penal code and verify that murder in New York carries a sentence of life in prison. I seriously doubt the plea agreement involves some lesser offense that would carry a determinate sentence of a set number of years. So as CBS's New York affiliate is indicating, the sentence would really be "40 to life." Which, given the choices of phrasing, is clearly the better way to report on the plea agreement because at least it incorporates the life part rather than implying the sentence would be a fixed term of years.

Honestly, how hard is it to report accurately on sentencing? Maybe it's a few extra words, but I think the accuracy is worth it. It's a life sentence with parole eligibility after 40 years. So it's not that he will get out in 40 years. It's that he could not conceivably get out for at least 40 years, and even then he would have to convince a parole board that he should be released even though he dismembered an 8 year old boy. And it's a good bet that a prosecutor will be there at the parole hearing, ready to show the board members pictures.

Conceptually, I understand why people think of it as a "40 to life" sentence. But I think it takes a way a bit from the understanding that the sentence is life in prison and that the number of years isn't the presumptive out date, but simply the first time anyone would even consider releasing the guy. I would certainly never want one of my clients to operate on the misguided assumption that his life sentence is really just a 25 year sentence. The public shouldn't have that misconception, either. So journalists should really report correctly.

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