Disgraced financier Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison Monday morning for running a massive Ponzi scheme. Why give a 71-year-old man a 150-year term instead of just life or life without parole? In 2005, Daniel Engber explained that judges hand down impossibly long prison sentences for both practical and symbolic purposes. The original article is reprinted below.
On Friday, the “BTK” serial killer, Dennis Rader, began serving the first of 10 consecutive life sentences for 10 murders he committed around Wichita, Kan. Wouldn’t one life sentence have been enough?
Not necessarily. A single life sentence might have given Rader a shot at parole. Kansas is one of only three states (along with Alaska and New Mexico) that always include the chance for parole no matter a crime’s severity. In most jurisdictions besides Kansas, judges can dole out life sentences with or without the possibility of parole; a few states, as well as the federal system, assign only “natural life” sentences, i.e., life without the possibility of parole.
In most cases, the judge delivers a sentence for each crime of which the defendant has been found guilty. (Rader pleaded guilty to 10 separate murders.) The judge then decides whether the sentences will be served concurrently or consecutively. Under Kansas law, the standard life sentence is “15 to life,” meaning the offender gets his first parole hearing after 15 years. No matter if he faced 10 (or even 100) concurrent sentences, that hearing would still come after 15 years.
No such privilege exists with consecutive sentencing. The judge in Rader’s case put 10 life terms end-to-end in order to ensure that Rader would never get parole. In addition, he used his discretion to make the 10th life sentence—for the slow strangulation of Dolores Davis—especially severe. Because the crime was committed in “an especially heinous, atrocious or cruel manner,” the minimum duration of that life sentence is 40 years. All told, Rader will have to wait 175 years before he’s eligible for parole—nine life sentences with parole after 15 years, and one with parole after 40 years.
One term of 40-to-life still might have kept Rader behind bars for good—he’s already in his 60s. So, why bother with the other nine? In cases where the accumulation of life sentences has no practical effect—for example, in states where life sentences don’t include the possibility for parole—courts assign multiple life terms for a few reasons. First, in a case with multiple victims, each family might find solace in knowing the criminal received a specific punishment for each crime. Second, the prosecutor might want multiple sentences on the books in case some were overturned on appeal. Third, the court could use back-to-back sentences to emphasize the crime’s severity to the governor or the board of pardons.
Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.
Explainer thanks Steven Chanenson of Villanova University and Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project.