A judge in Bucks County, Pennsylvania has sentenced a man to 494 to 982 years in prison for molesting children between the ages of 4 and 17 over a thirteen year period. Apparently he was initially arrested for tattooing a 15-year-old girl in exchange for sex, and the subsequent investigation led authorities to other victims. In all, he was convicted of 170 counts.
Now, I want to say right off that I find child molestation and abuse to be reprehensible, and I am absolutely in favor of severe punishments for such crimes. There is simply no excuse for adults preying on defenseless children.
At the same time, I cannot help but wonder what the point is in sentencing someone to hundreds of years–potentially almost a thousand years–in prison. Unless this individual is going to be the next Methuselah, he obviously is not going to serve even a small portion of that sentence.
I remember a similar situation years ago…probably almost twenty years ago…when a ridiculously long sentence was handed down in a similar conviction. I remember commenting on it to someone, who responded, “He would have been better off killing her.” Now, that sounds harsh, but it’s true. There are murder convictions every day that result in sentences that will allow the guilty to leave prison with years left to live. Sure, there are life sentences and even death sentences, but they are the exception, not the rule.
That leads to a question that I am not sure I know the answer to: is there such thing as a crime worse than murder? Is it possible to do something to someone that is worse than killing them? Can some offenses more seriously damage someone, physically or emotionally, than taking their life? As I said, I just do not know.
Scripture talks about “an eye for an eye.” And while some have taken that as a excuse for retribution, and some have even twisted its meaning by employing the line “an eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.” That is not the intention of that Old Testament teaching, however. “An eye for an eye” was intended to prevent retaliation and excessive punishment, not to encourage or sanction it. Tribes in the Old Testament would usually take the same attitude toward wrongs done to one of their own as gangs do today–which is generally summed up in this statement: “if you put one of ours in the hospital, we will put one of yours in the morgue.” In order to prevent that kind of vigilante justice, the Old Testament provided guidelines to ensure that the punishment would fit the crime. Thus, “an eye for an eye,” not “an eye for a tooth.”
There is considerable debate about what the purpose of incarceration is, and that is beyond the scope, really, of what I wanted to think about here today. (Perhaps I will explore that another time). And I am not wondering about the legitimacy of a 450-950 year sentence; I think it is absurd. I see no point in handing down a sentence that cannot possibly be served; why not just sentence him to the rest of his natural life in prison? Delivering a sentence that cannot possibly be served as given makes about as much sense as a teacher threatening a student with a consequence he or she cannot possibly carry out. What I just do not know is whether some crimes may be “worse” than murder and therefore justify a sentence equal to or harsher than those handed down for murder.