John Hamilton

Virtual Life Sentences – A Flawed Criminal.Justice System and its Continuum of Wasteful and Unjust Practices, by John Hamilton

– Assisted by the Still Life Study Conducted by the Sentencing Project

An alarming trend in America is its ever increasing use of life and longterm sentences (known as virtual life). One in seven people in prison is serving a life or virtual life sentence. Virtual life is defined as any individual serving a numeric sentence of more than 50 years (for the purposes of the Still Life Study…but some other studies define a virtual life sentence as one that exceeds 30 years).

The category of longterm prisoner has never been attempted to be quantified until just recently in the ‘Still Life’ study conducted by the Sentencing Project. Longterm imprisonment that is not statutorily defined as a life sentence should be of great concern to policymakers, courts, and prison administrations, all of whom have an interest in knowing the true prevalence of longterm imprisonment and the associated consequences. These longterm sentences are in fact, de facto life sentences by any definition because they extend beyond the typical lifespan.

What’s unsettling and disgraceful is in most instances, those serving virtual life are provided no consideration for parole, given no review for reconsideration or extended a sentence modification after being incarcerated for a specified amount of time. Without a second chance to make amends, redemption is lost and the burden is now unnecessarily placed on tax payers to care for these virtual lifers for the remainder of their lives, some, for nonviolent offenses and many others who’ve been convicted for the first time in their lives with no previous criminal record prior to the instant offense(s). Why have states continued to increase virtual life sentences when serious, violent crimes have been in decline for decades?

An example of this shameful practice can be found pretty close to home. I had no juvenile or adult criminal record prior to the instant offense(s) in my case. Thus, I have one conviction in my entire life which encompasses five charges that carried a recommendation by the Virginia Sentencing Commission of a sentence that ranged from a low end of two and a half years to an extended high of thirteen. Rather than receiving a sentence at or near the adjusted high-end of the guidelines (thirteen years) – a sentence that took into account all the facts in the indictment, allowable by the plea agreement and under the treaty – the court imposed a virtual life sentence of 55 years.

The increased use of life and virtual life sentences stands at odds with attempts to scale back mass incarceration. The massive use of incarceration in this country has come under scrutiny over the past decade with calls for reform on both fiscal and moral grounds. Some also believe and reason that the expansive and arbitrary use of imprisonment weakens its general deterrence value.

Lifelong imprisonment is not the best course of action for most people. Nor is it a valuable outcome for society. Legal scholar, Michael O’Hare, reminds us that policies rooted in fear and anger are misguided. Study, after study, after study, provides empirical evidence by respected legal scholars and reform organizations that demonstratively demonstrate diminishing public safety benefits associated with incarceration beyond twenty years. Therefore, this begs the question, is a tougher stance on sentencing really benefitting society?

Don’t take my word alone, or even that of the authors from all of these studies, but listen to the former Attorney General, Eric Holder. In a speech to the American Bar Association in 2013, he acknowledged that “too many Americans go to prisons for too long and for no truly good law enforcement reason.” Former Virginia Senator, Jim Webb, is on record and still advocating to this day, there are two types of people in America: those who think the criminal justice system desperately needs to be fixed, and those who haven’t been paying attention. Webb addressed it this way in a 2011 Newsweek article, “Either we have the most evil people on earth living in the U.S., or we are doing something dramatically wrong in terms of how we approach the issue of criminal justice.”

In that same article, Webb, addresses the abysmal condition of our criminal justice system and how mortifying it is on many fronts: fiscal, moral, and social grounds. But our knottiest problem is political. There will never be a more optimum time to address this sensitive subject matter than at this very moment.

Around the world, politics are far removed from regulating the penal and criminal justice systems. A commission comprised of criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists needs to be formed inorder to address and solve America’s morbid infatuation with mass incarceration and virtual life sentences. The fact is, if you allow these experts to take the reigns, remove politics, penal and criminal justice reforms could completely transform the mass incarceration epidemic in America.

Please express your dissatisfaction to representatives and put them on notice that their unwillingness to resolve the blight of mass incarceration in this country will result in their removal from office. The politicians are empowered by the power of the people. The people have an ethical and moral obligation to the civilized world to cultivate a life of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusion. Diversification is the lifeline to a thriving society. All are redeemable in God’s eyes. Perhaps with less hypocrisy and more humanity, change can finally be achievable.

John E. Hamilton, #1442949
Virginia Dept. of Corrections
Nottoway Correctional Center
2892 Schutt Rd / P.O. Box 488
Burkeville VA. 23922

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