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Susan Estrich
12 Feb 2016
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Life Sentences


Forty years after he was convicted for his involvement in two murders committed by Charles Manson, a California parole board has found that Bruce Davis is suitable for parole. His crimes, if it matters (and why should it?), didn't involve the notorious murder of the pregnant Sharon Tate; he participated in the killing of a musician and a stuntman. Early on, Davis claimed he was simply a bystander. A jury didn't agree. Since then, he has acknowledged shared responsibility. He has also been a model prisoner. He became a born-again Christian. He earned a master's degree and a doctorate in the philosophy of religion. He ministered to other prisoners.

Is that enough?

If the purpose of prison is to rehabilitate or incapacitate dangerous offenders for our protection, then Davis is a safe bet. The grainy picture of him today bares no resemblance whatsoever to the scary-looking guy from 40 years ago. Arrest rates for those 65 and older top out at around 2 percent. Recidivism rates are the lowest for older offenders.

I'm not afraid of Bruce Davis.

On the other hand, I hardly think he has any "right" to freedom. He was involved in the senseless and brutal killing of two men. He was sentenced to life without parole. He got what he deserved.

The harder question is what do we deserve.

Given the popularity of mandatory minimums for drug offenses and three-strikes-and-you're-out laws (or in, more accurately), it's not surprising that America's prison population is aging. The numbers are striking. Between 1995 and 2010, the number of inmates 55 and older grew almost seven times as fast as the prison population as a whole. Estimates predict that by 2030, a third of all prisoners will be over 55.

Keeping older prisoners locked up beyond the point where they are dangerous to anyone is, in a word, expensive. Very. They not only get room and board, but also medical care, which they do have a right to. There are no co-pays and deductibles in prison. If they become infirm, facilities have to be adjusted to be handicap accessible.

I'm sure I'll get letters from prisoners and their families telling me just how awful the health care is, but the fact is that courts have repeatedly ordered that prisoners have a right to have their health needs met.

Maybe not a transplant, but dialysis, medication, chemotherapy and the like. The cost is, by various estimates, a minimum of twice the cost to incarcerate a younger offender, even though there are greater security concerns with younger offenders.

Davis is, in many respects, an easier case than most. He was involved in two murders. There may be no case left for incarceration on grounds of incapacitation, and he can certainly claim that to the extent that one purpose of prison is rehabilitation, that purpose has been served. But life without parole is hardly an unjust punishment for two murders, whether he was the one who pulled the trigger or assisted in the killing. He was not an innocent bystander. He was — is — a murderer.

But many of those in prison are there for drug offenses or for multiple non-homicide offenses that they are unlikely to repeat and that do not bring letters from family members or prosecutors opposing parole. They are not murderers, much less notorious ones. So why are we spending a fortune — and providing better health care than many on the "outside" receive — to keep them incarcerated? How does that help us?

The political debate about crime for much of the past 30 years has been dominated by fear of politicians that they will be perceived as anything less than "tough on crime." In the wake of terrible events, who wants to be the one standing there saying no to a three-strikes law, no matter how poorly it is drafted? Who wants to say that the penalties for possessing and selling drugs (and I'm not talking about marijuana) are too low or shouldn't be increased? The easy vote is always the yes vote.

But the chickens are coming home to roost, and if you'll pardon me, they are not spring chickens. The consequences of treating crime as an issue of values and not policy, as we have, are not only the explosion of the prison population, but also the graying of it. At some point, we are going to have to face the hard questions, if not in the notorious case of Bruce Davis, then in hundreds more where the criminal is less notorious and the case for continued incarceration much weaker.

To find out more about Susan Estrich and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at



10 Comments | Post Comment
As usual, a thought provoking article. Ms. Estrich atates: "Keeping older prisoners locked up beyond the point where they are dangerous to anyone is, in a word, expensive. Very. They not only get room and board, but also medical care, which they do have a right to. There are no co-pays and deductibles in prison. "

If these prisoners are released, do we expect them to get jobs and pay for their own room and board as well as healthcare? In the future, will companies be hiring aged felons into jobs that provide good benefits and decent wages? Likely not. The public will be paying (at least partially) for these individuals regardless of whether they are in prison or not. So it comes down to a comparison of the per prisoner costs with them in jail or on parole. I guess unless their maintenance costs are significantly cheaper with them on parole (e.g., A lower total cost by a factor of 2 or 3) , I'd vote to keep them in prison where the public gets a small amount of additional protection from them.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Old Navy
Wed Feb 6, 2013 3:44 AM
It would be political suicide to release any large number of prisoners, either because of age or those convicted of non-violent offenses (tiny amounts of crack cocaine) for two reasons; 1. The politicians who vote for this will be denigrated for being "soft on crime, and 2. the unemployment rate will skyrocket when these former prisoners hit the streets.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Paul M. Petkovsek
Wed Feb 6, 2013 4:15 AM
We need more prisons, not making space in existing ones by early release. A sentence of life without parole is exactly that.
Comment: #3
Posted by: Oldtimer
Wed Feb 6, 2013 4:50 AM
Susan brings up some good points, and I notice she did not give her opinion to which Davis should be released or not. Its a tricky subject, and as Old Navy adds, do they realy have much of a life out of prison being that old? The rest of this article I totally agree with. We are packing our prisons with way too many non-violent drug offenders. We have a higher incarceration rate than China. I am not afraid of a stoner that got caught smoking dope one too many times. Our prison system is totally broken. Ex-cons have a near impossible time finding a job. Its funny that our last 3 presidents have all admited to doing illegal drugs. Ask any of them if they would have been better off getting caught. Yet thats the sentance they bestow on millions of people that did the exact same thing as them. More prisons and prisoners hurt the economy as are bad for everyone. Lock up the dangerous ones, but let the stoners go. Great article.
Comment: #4
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Wed Feb 6, 2013 6:34 AM
The problem is not one of current crime but of past crime and the mandatory minimum sentencing that created this huge prison population in many states. Couple that with Private, For Profit prisons run by corporations which only have the bottomline to consider and yu have paid lobbyists working over most sate legislatures in an attempt to ASSURE profitability. These corporations present the legislation and the lazy legislators simply rubber stamp the bills. The taxpayers suffer under the delusion that they are being protected when the real thieves are the shareholders of the for profit prisons. Any sentence that is much over five years , except for capital crimes, is a travesty. The longer a person is incarcerated, the less likely it is that they will transition back into society without problems. The majority of prisons do not have any effective work programs to keep prisoners in the habit of working a job. The Federal prisons have UNICOR programs but the private prisons do not as a rule have programs that are as strong if they do have them. The United States has the biggest percentage of its citizens incarcerated out of ANY country in the world. And that is NOT solving the prison problem. It is only adding to the problem. It is time to roll back many of these mandatory minimum sentences that were so popular decades ago. They have not worked and have only succeeded in permanantly breaking apart so many families. And it is the family support system that a prisoner needs to successfully transition from prison back to society.
Comment: #5
Posted by: robert lipka
Wed Feb 6, 2013 10:25 AM

Sounds like Susan makes a very good argument for capital punishment.

Comment: #6
Posted by: SusansMirror
Wed Feb 6, 2013 4:51 PM
Re: SusansMirror Absolutely right. Immediate execution upon conviction protects us from being continuously being robbed year after year. Execution has never been about revenge, but about protecting society.
Comment: #7
Posted by: David Henricks
Thu Feb 7, 2013 2:57 AM
Robert brings up too good topics that are missed here. For profit prisons might work if enacted properly, but we've seen judges paid off to send people there unfairly. There are also other problems. And the minimum sentencing has done more harm than good keeping people in prison for longer than they need to be. This is especailly true for drug crimes. We need reform for sure.
Comment: #8
Posted by: Chris McCoy
Thu Feb 7, 2013 6:25 AM
It was a coincidence that right before I read this article, I read about a 72 year old man in Barstow, CA being convicted of molesting a 5 year old. Please, Ms. Estrich, tell me what age it is that criminals stop being a threat to society, our families, our children? Since when does being old make you innocent? Many of the older prison population has rotted away for years for the crimes they have committed, but why? Because they were found GUILTY or admitted to their GUILT. Their crimes were so disgusting and heinous that we as a society believe they should be locked away for the rest of their lives.
I happen to work for a state agency in California. I have had my wages and benefits cut due to the fiscal crisis our state is in. Although I do not agree that state workers should be required to cover the losses from bad budgeting and poor planning, I would take it all with a smile on my face knowing that monsters, murders, know, all those people who are supposed to die in prison, do die in prison; alone, in a cold, cement cell, with the kowledge that no matter what they did to make themselves feel better after their crimes, they will close their eyes for the last time and go straight to...
Comment: #9
Posted by: SMHinCA
Thu Feb 7, 2013 11:12 AM
Old people are capable of committing crimes just as well as young people. Releasing aging criminals is not the solution. Effective measures are required to deal with drug offenders. Our country declared war on drugs back when Nixon was president.
All the comments above were insightful. Ms. Estrich, I appreciate you bringing this conversation to the table.
Would like to hear you offer solid solutions to the lawmakers. You have the depth of knowlegde.
Comment: #10
Posted by: Sarita Battish
Sat Feb 9, 2013 4:27 PM
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