Should there be a maximum sentence for non-violent crimes? If so, what?

I browse Slashdot on occasion, and I find a common theme amongst certain posters when a story on certain (most often non-violent) crimes come up: that the very idea of serving beyond a particular amount of time for those crimes is an outrage. “[T]he 24-year sentence is utterly absurd for any offense that doesn’t involve death or serious bodily harm.”

Do you agree? How much time is too much for “any” non-violent offense?

I think that life would be a perfectly justifiable sentence for the likes of Ken Lay and Bernie Madoff. Nowadays, however, absurdly long sentences are handed out for minor crimes, particularly drug-related ones. I’d enthusiastically support a 10-year limit on punishments for non-violent crimes and let the Lays and Madoffs go free in order to improve that lives of millions of people who spend much of their life behind bars for owning and dealing small amounts of banned substances.

If it’s actually non-violent prison shouldn’t be involved at all. However, there will probably be some repeat offenders who must be incarcerated to stop their actions (not simple 3 strike stuff, repeated serious crimes detrimental to society). Trouble is the definition of violent crime. If you threaten someone with violence and are stopped before carrying it out, that should be a violent crime. If you commit a non-violent crime while carrying a gun, that should be considered violent (armed burglar is the typical example). There will be other ways that people consider some crimes that are non-violent in actuality to be violent tangentially.

As long as we’re going to use prison sentences as a one-size-fits-all sort of punishment, then I think the context of the crime is important. It’s easy to say that someone who, say, burglarizes some houses or sold drugs or some other smaller non-violent crimedoesn’t deserve some ridiculously long sentence, but at some point a non-violent crime becomes a really big deal. For instance, some of these massive white-collar criminals making off with billions from people’s savings, having a major impact on the lives of thousands of people, and a lesser affect on millions in terms of interest rates and the market. IMO, even though that white collar criminal did what he did without any violence, the amount of damage he did to such a huge number of people outweighs pretty much anything that a violent criminal can do short of an act of terrorism.

I do think that there should be limits on sentences, and I don’t think it should be limited to non-violent crime either. The sentence should match the crime. For a lot of non-violent crimes, prison doesn’t seem to be the right answer because it mostly serves as a way of protecting the public from criminals, whereas a non-violent offender isn’t a threat in the same way a murderer is. Like, tax fraud doesn’t make much sense to throw in jail, paying what they owe and additional fines makes more sense and throwing them in jail makes it harder for them to pay it back while also making them a burden on society. I’d rather us just consider other alternatives, particularly in cases where it’s illogical, or like in a case of imbezzling huge sums of money where it won’t serve as a deterent rather than just making sentences longer and longer hoping it’ll eventually be scary enough to prevent a crime.

It’s interesting that the argument is made that the non-violent criminals should be serving less time; I think it’s a direct outgrowth of attitudes toward drug crimes.

When I was in school, the more liberal among us were always lamenting that the sentences for violent crimes were disproportionately long, while the non-violent criminals (i.e. people committing embezzlement, fraud, tax evasion, violations of environmental regulations, etc.) were getting off too lightly.

I think if you’re going to talk about non-violent crime, you have to differentiate between crimes involving drugs and white collar crimes. The sentences that people believe are appropriate for these two categories vary widely.

Capital punishment for treason.

100+ year sentences for securities fraud.

If the impact of the non-violence is great enough I would support the death penalty.

For example, the folks that lied about the carcinogenic effects of tobacco and asbestos.

No. I’m perfectly OK for multiple life sentences for large economic crimes, pollution and other environmental offences, and also for indirectly violent war crimes like politicians who start wars of aggression.

In other words, rich people’s crimes should receive the same punishments as poor people’s crimes.

While I don’t believe imprisonment is warranted, posting on Slashdot should at least be cause for probation.

Burglary should have a fairly strong punishment in my opinion. I feel this way because a nonviolent burglary can so quickly become a violent burglary. Maybe a person broke into a house when no one was thought to be home and stole a tv. But if the wife unexpectedly walked out of the bathroom, the burglar was fully prepared to kill her.

With the amount of guns in America (not saying this is good or bad), burglary is an extremely high risk crime, and I think most burglars would have to be very desperate people to attempt one. Desperate criminals are often dangerous criminals.

Overall tho, every case would have to be looked at individually I guess.

No, there should not be a maximum sentence for all non-violent crimes. As has been noted, non-violent crimes are capable of inflicting as much or more harm upon others than violent crimes are. Treason and espionage are obvious examples.

The harm done is primary criterion for scaling the punishment to the crime. An arbitrary cap would thus interfere with justice being done in many cases.

Sentences shouldn’t just be determined by how bad the crime is, or how much damage it causes. They should also take into account what does it take to get the bad guys to cut that crap out?

Well, whatever it takes, it’s clearly not longer sentences. If it were, there wouldn’t be anyone commiting those crimes, as there’s (probably) at least one person serving a life sentence due to commiting just about every non-violent crime you can think of, and the crime hasn’t stopped.

A simplistic argument, but clear. Length of sentence may be a deterrent, but not a cure, and shouldn’t be treated as one.

I think the issue is there’s two big categories of non-violent crimes: property crimes and victimless crimes (or crimes where the victim was a willing participant). Lots of people have no problem with property crime (regardless of whether it’s stealing a stereo or embezzling a pension fund) being punished by imprisonment. But victimless crimes (drugs, gambling, prostitution) are more ambiguous.