Sentences like Larry Nassar's are about punishment – not rehabilitation

by Joanne Black / 05 February, 2018

Former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Photo/Getty Images

The sentencing of former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar to a maximum of 175 years’ jail on sexual abuse charges is not untypical in the United States. He recently began a 60-year sentence for child-pornography offences, and the additional sentence, related to abusing gymnasts, will start once the 54-year-old finishes that, if he ever does.

There are a number of factors in the US’s absurdly long jail sentences. The most hopeful – and unlikely – reason is that it gives an offender time to be rehabilitated. On that basis, if Nassar served his first sentence, then did his 175 years, he might emerge a model citizen, aged 289.

The more common explanation for long sentences is that jail’s primary purpose is punishment. At sentencing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told Nassar she didn’t believe rehabilitation was possible for him. Therefore, it seems the length of his sentence is mostly punitive but also about satisfaction for his victims. The US has always had a tendency to lock up people, even for minor offences. In 2015, more than 2.2 million people were in prison. No country does more than the US to promote the concept of individual liberty, yet no country has a higher incarceration rate. If that paradox is of interest to Nassar, he has a long time to think about it.

So does Dudley Wayne Kyzer, who murdered three people in 1976 and was sentenced to death. After a retrial in 1981, he was sentenced to two life sentences plus 10,000 years’ jail. He has applied for parole many times since, but having so far served only 36 of his 10,000 years, the maths seems to be working against him.

This is an excerpt from the Back to Black column first published in the February 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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