Is Michelle Carter’s punishment for death-by-text a slap on the wrist or cruel and unusual?
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With the news in that a Massachusetts judge sentenced homicide-by-text defendant Michelle Carter to fifteen months in prison and six years on probation, many are outraged at the perceived leniency of the sentence.

They may have a point, but only because brutally harsh sentences have become the norm in American criminal justice, and with devastating effects. The past decades have witnessed massive “sentencing inflation” as periods of incarceration have become longer and longer.

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If Carter’s sentence seems short, it is because we are weighing it on a broken scale.

 

In the past 40 years, the incarceration rate in the United States skyrocketed by 500 percent. The United States now locks up more of its people than Russia and China — some 2.2 million of us. According to the Sentencing Project, “Changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase.”

Increasing rates of incarceration at best has a minimal effect on crime, and may have no effect at all. In other words, mass incarceration is all about politics, not public safety.

As a law professor who focuses on civil rights in the criminal justice system, I can understand why Carter’s sentence seems lenient. After all, there are any number of cases in which people far less culpable than Carter got hammered with far longer sentences.

For example, the so-called felony murder rule says that if you are committing a crime and someone dies in the course of offense — even accidentally — you are guilty of murder. The rule imposes devastating sentences on people who never meant to kill anyone.

Take the case of fifteen-year old Justin Doyle, who, along with two of his friends, broke into a house they believed to be empty. It was not. The three boys inadvertently woke up a man asleep in the house, and he shot and killed Doyle’s friend, Travis Castle. Doyle was charged with murder because Castle, whom Doyle described as “like a little brother to him” was killed in the course of the crime.  Doyle received a 30-year sentence.

Compared to Justin Doyle’s 30 years, Carter got off easy with 15 months. Doyle did not have the slightest desire to hurt his dear friend. The evidence against Carter showed that she pressured Conrad Roy to kill himself, and instructed him via text to get back into a truck full of toxic gas after he had gotten out.

Carter’s sentence for contributing to a death also seems short compared to the average sentence for people convicted of selling drugs in state court — five years. If you unintentionally cause a death by selling drugs — as when a buyer overdoses — you can be charged with death by distribution and face decades in prison. Compare that to Carter, who encouraged her boyfriend to take his own life.

The United States Supreme Court has also dismantled the notion that the Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause imposes meaningful limits on the length of prison sentences. In Ewing v. California, the Court upheld a sentence of 25 years to life under California’s “three strikes” law. The third strike that triggered the lengthy sentence? Stealing golf clubs.

In Carter’s case, one might also speculate that race and privilege shortened the sentence. In federal cases, black males face sentences 20 percent greater than white males convicted of similar offenses. Thus, New York rap artist NUFF$AID reacted to Carter’s sentence by tweeting, “Sounds about white.”

By current measures, then, it is fair to characterize Carter’s sentence as lenient. But the right way to think about Carter’s sentence — indeed, any sentence — is to think about how incarceration and probation affect people. From this standpoint, the sentence is anything but lenient.

Carter suffers from depression, according to a psychiatrist who testified in the case. Incarceration often exacerbates mental health disorders, and it will likely worsen hers.

Carter is probably going to die sooner as a result of prison time.  Each year of being locked up shaves about two years off of one’s life expectancy.

Felony convictions also carry a host of collateral consequences. These vary from state to state, but often include significant limitations on constitutional rights, including the ability to vote in elections and the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Getting a job with a felony conviction is extremely difficult, and forces many former prisoners back into criminality.

Perhaps Carter deserves all of this. I don’t envy the job of Judge Lawrence Moniz, who sentenced Carter, or any sentencing judge forced to navigate a course been righteous outrage and compassion.

But we should not blithely dismiss the sentence as lenient. Michelle Carter’s sentence will damage her, and follow her forever.

David M. Shapiro is the director of appellate litigation for the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center, a clinical assistant professor of law at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.