On Thursday afternoon, former two-term Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years in federal prison for a slew of corruption charges, including helping a friend illegally obtain $70 million in city contracts and using "over $840,000 cash, derived from the extortion/bribery/fraud conspiracy" for personal expenses.
There's no question Kilpatrick broke the law, disgraced his office, and screwed over Detroit. But locking him up for 28 years is a ludicrous solution.
For starters, it's a waste of resources. As of 2012, the annual per capita cost of housing an inmate in a minimum security federal prison was $19,325, up from $18,849 in 2011. Taking into account modest cost increases over the course of Kilpatrick's sentence, it's fair to say he'll cost taxpayers at least another half million, and possibly more. That's a lot of money. Not to mention, the federal prison system is 40 percent over capacity. So Kilpatrick will also be taking up space that could and should be used for violent felons.
But Kilpatrick's sentence is also problematic from another perspective: It reflects just how crazy sentencing has gotten in the U.S., and shows why we have the largest actual and per capita prison population on the planet.
"Politicians have ratcheted up sentences so much that ten years in prison no longer seems like a long time," says Julie Stewart, founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums and one of the most prominent advocates for sentencing reform. "This is all driven, of course, by the drug sentences Congress passed in 1986. And with drug sentences so high, punishment for other crimes had to be commensurate."
It's not like Kilpatrick, if given a shorter sentence, will be able to sneak back into office and rob Detroit blind for a second time (knock on wood). "Taxpayers will be footing the bill purely to punish him," Stewart says, "not because they’re afraid he’ll recommit those crimes if he is released in 4 years instead of 28."
Thinking differently about how we punish white collar criminals—including public servants—would be in keeping with the larger move toward sentencing reform. In the realm of drug offenses, for instance, even conservatives think that "swift and certain" sanctions for nonviolent drug crimes are a better punishment than years in the clink. And white collar offenders like Kilpatrick have skills that will absolutely go to waste behind bars. (Hey, he did manage to bring the Super Bowl to Detroit.)
"I’m not opposed to a prison punishment for these officials—if it makes sense," says Stewart, who generally supports a shorter sentence followed by a requirement that offenders "raise money or do volunteer work or something that would use [their] talents to give back to society, instead of being a drain on it."
Not to mention that for most white collar criminals, a years-long sentence versus a decades-long one will have the same impact on their career and reputation. "Most peers of white collar criminals shrink at the idea of being publicly humiliated, losing everything the person has worked a lifetime for, dragging their families through the PR mud, and wearing the 'felon' nametag for the rest of their lives," Stewart says. "Of course, there are exceptions to this, but generally, whether the sentence is 1 year or 28, the deterrence is the same."
The difference is that someone who leaves prison after a few years is still able to contribute to society. A 71-year-old, newly released Kilpatrick likely wouldn't be.
Top image: Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick leaves the U.S. District Court after he was convicted on federal racketeering and other charges in Detroit, Michigan March 11, 2013. (REUTERS/Jeff Kowalsky)