Punitive prison sentences

The US criminal (in)justice system has at least two major flaws. One is some police and prosecutors prioritizing convictions over justice, and the other is them seeking extremely harsh penalties for even minor crimes. Combine that with racial prejudice and the combination is deadly because you can end up with innocent people serving extremely long sentences and even being executed.

As an example of the first type, I wrote recently about how many police line-ups are conducted in a way that witnesses are subtly influenced by the police officers who have arrested a suspect to pick the suspect, instead of using a double-blind method.

As an even more extreme example of the two flaws together, Emily Bazelon writes about a case in 2012 in which 19-year old Yutico Briley was wrongfully convicted of a crime because the prosecutors were more interested in getting a conviction than justice.

Briley ended up facing two kinds of serious charges, he explained. The police stopped him on his way to a store and arrested him for carrying a gun. Then they also booked him for an armed robbery that occurred nearly a day earlier. “I pled guilty to the gun because I had a gun,” he wrote. “I went to trial on the armed robbery because not only was I innocent, I have never robbed nobody in my life.”

Briley told me one more thing. He was sentenced to prison for 60 years without the possibility of parole.

Luckily for Briley, he wrote to Bazelon, who although she has a law degree does not practice law but works as a journalist. She, with the help of her sister who is a law professor, decided to look into the case and found a series of prosecutorial and police wrongdoing that ultimately resulted in Briley being released this year. I know all about the horrors of the US (in) justice system but 60 years without the possibility of parole for this? It is true that he did have a prior conviction for selling drugs but that was at the age of 17. It was this excessive sentence that led Bazelon to look more closely into this particular case out of the many that prisoners contact her about.

I didn’t know whether Briley was telling the truth about his innocence. But either way, an effective life sentence, for a teenager convicted of robbery, seemed excessive. I looked up the case online. Though it’s terrifying to be held up at gunpoint, the victim of the robbery, a man in his 20s, was physically unharmed. He was also the only eyewitness. The police treated Briley as a suspect because he matched aspects of the description the victim gave when he called 911: He was young and Black and wearing a gray hoodie.

In this case, police did not even bother with a lineup. They put just Briley, a Black man, in front of the white victim, a practice known as a ‘show up’, and asked the latter if he was the person. The witness said he was, even though the description he had given police earlier of his appearance and clothes did not match. The judge pointed to the fear of this witness as a reason for the long sentence.

The trial ended three hours after it began, and at the end of the afternoon, the jury found Briley guilty. At Briley’s sentencing hearing a couple of months later, Judge Zibilich gave him a lecture. “I can’t imagine somebody who appeared more scared than this victim did,” the judge said. “The reason why he was so frightened, sir, was because of you. This court is convinced beyond all doubt that you committed this offense. I just don’t simply understand what goes on in this town.”

(Some commenters to my earlier post said that the term double-blind was not appropriate since only the people conducting the line-up should be unaware of who the suspect is. But Bazelon uses that term, since the witness called upon to identify the perpetrator should also not know whom the police suspect of the crime. In the case of ‘show-ups’, the witness clearly knows. A fair line up is one in which the suspect is lined up with similar looking people and thus is single blind. To make it double blind, the people conducting the line up should also not know which of the people in the line up is the suspect.)

To make things worse, Briley’s first lawyer did not look into evidence that Briley pointed him to that showed he had an alibi for the time of the crime.

What helped in freeing Briley was that in 2020, the long-serving New Orleans district attorney Leon Cannizzaro, notorious for asking for long sentences, who had prosecuted Briley’s case and refused to reopen it to look at new evidence, decided not to run for re-election. One of his biggest critics Jason Williams won the race to replace him. Furthermore Franz Zibilich, the judge who had overseen the case originally and issued the long sentence, lost his re-election to Angel Harris, a 36-year-old former public defender and civil rights lawyer.

The new DA started reviewing doubtful cases that his predecessor had obtained convictions for and in March of this year, after hearing the evidence, judge Harris exonerated Briley. But in the meantime, Briley had suffered horribly in prison, being attacked by other inmates and put on suicide watch.. The good news is that he is still young and he seems to be recovering and trying to make something of his life.

While we can celebrate the happy ending of this particular case, the sad truth is that there are undoubtedly many, many other innocent people who are languishing in prison for years, decades, and have even been executed, because police and prosecutors simply did not care about getting at the truth.This is why electing reform-minded district attorneys is so important. Reforming of the police is, of course, long-overdue.

So to sum up, a horrendous set of circumstances resulted in a young person being sentenced to effectively life in prison despite being innocent. And then an utterly fortuitous set of circumstances resulted in him being freed. And that may be the biggest indictment of the system, that random chance plays such a big a role.


  1. Matt G says

    I have served on one jury, and it was for a medical doctor accused of shoplifting and instigating violence that occurred subsequent to his being detained by security. The security guards who testified against him were black and Hispanic, while he was white. Of the nine of us selected for the jury, five of us did a great job, while four were downright awful. Two of those four were dismissed from the trial halfway through, but because they talked nonstop, not because they proved themselves incapable of being fair and impartial.

    The other two also showed their bias, making excuses for the doctor and his contradictory and absurd testimony, and calling into question the witnesses honesty and motives. We ended up a hung jury, and the case had to be repeated with a new jury. It was the prosecutor’s third case ever, given to her, obviously, because it was a slam dunk. Well, she did an excellent job, but was foiled by the bigots on the jury. If we can’t even get simple cases like this one right, what hope is there for the serious ones?

  2. Jörg says

    Bazelon’s article is gripping.
    Mano, as a minor quibble, in your 3rd paragraph, what is “an even more example”? 😉

    [The missing word was ‘extreme’. I have corrected it. Thanks! -- Mano]

  3. sonofrojblake says

    Imprisonment has a number of legitimate functions:
    1. Deterrence: most people don’t want to be locked up. Doesn’t work for people with poor impulse control.
    2. Retribution: society -- not just the victims, but those who could have been victims -- has a legitimate, reasonable desire to do harm to those who have harmed them. One must rely on the judiciary not to lean too heavily on this aspect.
    3. Security: if the scum who burgled my house are locked up, then for that limited amount of time they’re not personally able to burgle my house. Can’t see how this one is arguable at all in and of itself.
    4. Rehabilitation: ideally, every prison sentence would be the last one for the person sentenced, because after the experience they don’t do crimes again, having been equipped during their sentence to live a legit life and have any disadvantages they may have come in with at least partly mitigated.

    From the outside, Scandinavian justice seems to be a lot about (4), British justice seems to be more about (3), and US “justice” seems to be almost entirely about (2).

    One must remember, in any discussion of this sort, that unlike the civilised world, the US never abolished slavery. It is explicitly permitted in the Constitution of the nation. Never forget that.

  4. Holms says

    Imprisonment has a number of legitimate functions:

    2. Retribution: society — not just the victims, but those who could have been victims — has a legitimate, reasonable desire to do harm to those who have harmed them. One must rely on the judiciary not to lean too heavily on this aspect.


  5. says

    Imprisonment has a number of legitimate functions

    I see some assertions, all of which appear to be contrary to reality.

    Your trichitomy, though, is one I have presented elsewhere, but only in the comtext of: “things that don’t work.”

  6. mnb0 says

    “The US criminal (in)justice system has at least two major flaws.”
    The biggest flaw of course is that it doesn’t do what hardliners promise: make life safer. That’s why many, including me, suspect that this system’s main goal is quite different: protect the interests of the rich. That would explain why those hardliners don’t care about locking up innocent people.
    Recently I provided evidence for the statement that the USA are not a democracy. Now I ask the question whether we still can call it a rechtsstaat.


    Anyhow, as a non-American I feel as little desire to visit the USA as to Russia. This story certainly didn’t help:


    Washington is supposed to be a liberal state.

  7. says

    Now I ask the question whether we still can call it a rechtsstaat

    Of course not. Vote manipulation by both parties (going all the way back to the founding) make it an oligarchy, not a democracy. And, as Rousseau argues, a state that does not have a means of reliably determining the will of the people is not a legitimate state. I’d also drop a bit of Spinoza into the mix: Spinoza pointed out thst “secret diplomacy” (and I’d argue government secrecy) are contradictory in a democracy because the people’s opinion is being deliberately bypassed in the establishment of the secret. That’s anti-democratic and therefore the state is not legitimate.

    We also see a tiered “justice system” in which the attorney general can decide not to charge a politician for torture, which is a capital crime in the US shows, again, that the US is not a legitimate state.

    The construction of the system, in which a politician, in principle, takes office to represent a constituency but then proceeds to ignore them and take money from donors. That is also fake democracy, and thus not legitimate.

    To be fair: I often refer to the US as a fake democracy, and illegitimate, which are arguments rooted in Rousseau’s social contract, and Robert Paul Wolff’s In Defense Of Anarchy -- Wolff sets such a high bar for democratic legitimacy that for all intents and purposes democracy never results in legitimate governments. Per Wolff: all that’s left is force. It is more characteristic that government monopolizes violence, than that it responds to the will of the people.

    Shorter: of course the US is not a legitimate state -- its government was constructed around slavery and you can’t get any more authoritarian and anti-democratic than a slave state (especially one that allows owners to vote for the slaves they own)

  8. sonofrojblake says

    @mjr, 5: (my emphasis)

    I see some assertions, all of which appear to be contrary to reality

    Well now I’m intrigued.

    In reality, which of these is the case?
    -- long sentences given to other people they’ve never met work to deter criminality in people with poor impulse control
    -- it is unreasonable to wish harm on someone who has done you harm
    -- a person who is locked up in prison is able, at the same time, to be out in society burgling my house
    -- rehabilitation should not be an aim of imprisonment

    I’m honestly interested which of those things you think is part of reality.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    @Holms, 4: Your communication is ambiguous to the point of pointlessness, consisting as it does of a single word. What is it about the paragraph you quoted that you are “nope”ing?

    That it’s reasonable to visit harm upon those who have harmed you?

    Or that the judiciary has a responsibility not to visit such harms unreasonably?

  10. sonofrojblake says

    some people do deserve punitive sentencing

    Viscerally, I agree with that. It hits on my point (2). mbn0 gets to the point handily -- do those sentences work? They certainly work if your intention is solely retribution. But what about the other three?

    Ultimately, wouldn’t the best thing be to do what makes life for everyone safer and more secure? And what if the solution to that is, counter-intuitively, NOT tougher sentences?

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