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August 29, 2020

What punishment theories and "whos" explain Alice Marie Johnson being sentenced to LWOP and then having the sentence commuted and then pardoned?

Alice_Johnson_-_2019_State_of_the_Union_Guests_(40035011983)_(cropped)One main goal of our first few weeks of classes is to enable you to be able to analyze and assess in a sophisticated way the theories of punishment and institutional players that formally and functionally have key roles in the operation of our sentencing systems.  As I have already started to emphasize and will continue to highlight, it is persistently challenging to decide precisely which theories and players normatively should be predominate in an ideal sentencing system.  But, for practicing lawyers and effective advocates, it is particularly important and valuable just to be able to notice which theories and players descriptively are shaping our actual sentencing systems.

This coming week, we will spend time unpacking which punishment theories and which "whos" are playing key roles in the historic Williams case and in the enactment and application of mandatory minimum sentencing statutes.  But, because Alice Marie Johnson is in the news and makes for a great case study, I will likely start our class on Tuesday by asking the question in the title of this post, namely "What punishment theories and 'whos' explain Alice Marie Johnson being sentenced to LWOP, and then having the sentence commuted and then pardoned?".

This wikipedia page on Ms. Johnson provides an effective short accounting of her life history and the crimes that led her to being sentenced to life without parole.  As I mentioned in class, she spoke at the last night of the Republican National Convention and PBS has her short speech available via YouTube at this link.  For a lot more context, you might even check out this 2013 report from the ALCU titled "A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses." Ms. Johnson's case is profiled at pages 56-58 of this 240-page(!) report.

I do not expect you to do a lot of reading about this case, but I am eager for you to think a lot about what theories may have driven her initial sentence and also her commutation and pardon.  I also want you to thinking broadly about all the different "whos" who played an important role in her initial sentence and also her commutation and pardon.

August 29, 2020 in Class activities, Clemency, Current Affairs, Theories of punishment, Who decides | Permalink

Comments

Based on my limited research (ie reading Wikipedia) it seems that Ms Johnson's sentence was so long due to a combination of factors: 1. mandatory minimums, 2. prosecutorial discretion, and 3. (somewhat related to #2), the effect of not pleading out. Our textbook discussed that plea bargaining may lead to lower-level criminals getting higher sentences, while criminals higher up in a drug ring are able to plead out because of the information that they have to leverage with the police/DA. I wonder if something similar was going on with Ms. Johnson.

Posted by: Lisa | Aug 31, 2020 10:41:10 AM

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