A reader emailed me (thanks!) a link to this excellent piece by Liliana Segura for the Nation on US-European criminal-justice contrasts:
The United States is uniquely punitive when it comes to sentencing compared to much of the rest of the world, whether the crime is murder or drug possession. Putting aside the death penalty, which lands us in dubious international company, in countries with life sentences on the books, prisoners are often eligible for release after a few decades. “Mexico will not extradite defendants who face sentences of life without parole,” the New York Times’s Adam Liptak noted in 2005 (Most of Latin America has no such sentence). “And when Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, was pardoned in 2000, an Italian judge remarked, ‘No one stays 20 years in prison.’ ”
The same article quoted Yale law professor James Q. Whitman, author of a book comparing US sentencing with Europe. “Western Europeans regard 10 or 12 years as an extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced in theory to life,” he said. Today, there are more than 41,000 people serving life without parole in the United States compared to fifty-nine in Australia, forty-one in England and thirty-seven in the Netherlands. That’s according to a study released this spring, which found that we are “in the minority of countries using several sentencing practices, such as life without parole, consecutive sentences, juvenile life without parole, juvenile transfer to adult courts, and successive prosecution of the same defendant by the state and federal government.” In the United States, prison sentences have gotten longer and longer—a sea change that Americans have come to accept relatively quickly (largely because the targets have been people of color). Just a few decades ago in high-incarceration states like Louisiana, lifers were eligible for release in ten and a half years. Today in Louisiana, there is no longer parole for lifers, and thus virtually no hope of release, ever. And when it comes to crimes prosecuted under the War on Drugs, three-strikes sentencing and mandatory minimums have not only sent people away for life for minor drug offenses—an anomaly compared to the rest of the world—they have led to a current reality in which the vast majority of people arrested on nonviolent drug charges plead guilty—whether they are or not—in order to avoid such draconian prison sentences, a decision that can have lifelong implications.
...[T]he notion that a retribution-based system hands out sentences that “fit the crime” is wildly and tragically false if the United States is your guide. In the United States, grandmothers are sentenced to life for first-time drug offenses. Mothers who fire a “warning shot” in self-defense at an abusive husband get twenty years in prison. Teenagers who kill their abusive pimp get sentenced to life without parole. Kids who commit crimes at 14 have been condemned to die in prison—getting raped along the way—with no consideration for their age, mental health or abusive upbringing. People land on death row for failing to anticipate that an accomplice in a crime might kill someone—and people are executed for killings committed by others who then go free. The American model—which Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia recently summed up by musing, “I thought that modern penology has abandoned that rehabilitation thing”—is a system rife with injustice.