In North Carolina, a judge sentenced three men to 53 to 71 years in prison for 11 counts of robbery. For just about anyone, not even being eligible for parole for at least 50 years has the same effect as a life sentence. Odds are none of the three will get out.
In arriving at this long sentence, the judge made note of the scene of the crime: a church during Sunday service. According to the judge, "You didn't just steal money from people. You took God's money. You took the Lord's money."
Naturally, the men appealed their sentences as high as they could. (They couldn't appeal their convictions because they pled guilty.) Appellate courts refused to remand the case for new sentencing because the sentences were within that allowed by law, though the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did note that judges should probably avoid the perception that they're using the bench as a pulpit.
Well, gee, that's great, 4th Circuit. But can I speak as a homeowner whose home has been burglarized here? Let me assure you that if I heard the guy who busted into my home got a lighter sentence than guys who broke into a church, I would be quite put out. God's money (whatever the hell that is) isn't worth more than mine. The sanctity of a church isn't somehow greater or worthier than the sanctity of my home. In my view, stealing my grandmother's ruby necklace is way worse than stealing anything one could find at a church. And breaking into a person's private home is more of an invasion than breaking into a non-residential building. See how this can go, Mr. Sentencing Judge?
The whole point of the sentencing guidelines my state has gone to is to remove this kind of favoritism in sentencing. The "my offering plate money is worth more than your piggy bank coins" treatment of cases isn't fair or just or right. We all have our own inherent biases, but a sentencing judge should be aware of his or her biases and should do everything possible to prevent those biases from affecting a sentencing decision. This sentencing judge may have issued a sentence that is legally allowable, but his words trouble me. If nothing else, maybe this judge will learn from all of this that he should be a little more thoughtful about what he says to explain his sentences. And if he realizes he wouldn't have sentenced the same had the crime scene been an Islamic mosque or a Buddhist temple, then we can hope he will learn not to let that bias affect him the next time.