Fault Lines
20 June 2017

What’s in a 20-Year Sentence for Jose Torres?

March 2, 2017 (Fault Lines) – Two seemingly contradictory things are true of Kayla Norton and Jose Torres. First, they engaged in an appalling array of abusive conduct across two counties. Second, the sentences they received for their conduct seem excessive.

When the pair was sentenced on Monday, Judge McClain had a litany of offenses to support his decision. As part of a Confederate-flag-flying motorcade, they threatened African American motorists and shoppers. On at least one occasion those threats appear to have involved a firearm.

For the cherry on top, their motorcade made a pit stop to throw racial epithets and threats at people attending an eight-year-old’s birthday party. They did all of this a mere month after Dylan Roof killed nine African Americans in a Charleston Church.

Waving a gun and a Confederate flag around an African American birthday party just one month after a mass shooting, while shouting that you’re going to kill people, is about as clear a threat as a threat can be. Appropriately, Norton and Torres promptly faced moral condemnation through a criminal sanction. Here is where the story gets a little more complicated.

Torres received a 20-year sentence, 13 of which will be served in prison. Norton got 15 years, and she will serve 6 in prison. For some, this is justice. The two bigots dished it out and then cried at sentencing because they couldn’t take it.

For those concerned about America’s massive and seemingly intractable prison population, however, it may be worth asking if double-digit sentences for offenses that, to paraphrase Jefferson, neither broke legs nor picked pockets, is a sign that something is awry with the nation’s laws.

When it comes to the developed world, the United States leads the pack in sentence lengths. In Germany, for example, 75 percent of sentences were for one year or less. That goes up to 92 percent for sentences of two years or less. In contrast, the average U.S. sentence is three years. The U.S. is also the only nation that regularly sentences children to life without parole.

How this happened is no mystery. As Julie Stewart of Families against Mandatory Minimums notes, passing stiffer sentences is politicians’ Pavlovian response to crime. Combine that with the challenge of passing anything that reduces sentences, and it’s easy to see how sentence length becomes a one-way journey up.

Whether these ever-increasing sentences are a good idea is a separate question. Prison sentences have two common rationales: rehabilitation and retribution. U.S. prisons are remarkably inept at rehabilitation. People going to state prisons have a 68 percent recidivism rate after three years, and about half of people in federal prison will recidivate over eight years. Particularly for Norton and Torres’s racially motivated crimes, it is doubtful that putting someone in the same kind of institutions that spawned and sustain the Aryan Brotherhood is likely to produce a revelation in their world view.

For some though, this doesn’t matter because the primary goal is not rehabilitation, but retribution. By punishing Torres and Norton, society extracts a moral penance equal to the heinousness of their acts. But what is an equal penance? In the U.S., sentences are often seen as light if they don’t break double digits. But consider what a six-year prison sentence actually means.

If a person has kids, there’s a good chance that even this “light” sentence means that they will miss a major milestone or two. In the six years of Norton’s prison term, someone could complete college and be two years into a career. People complete high school, graduate from college, find love, and put down their first house payment in the time it will take Torres to serve his bit.

Instead of doing any of that, Torres will restart his life at 39 with the resume of a 26-year-old. It’s worse actually, since an employer is probably more likely to hire a 26-year-old than a 39-year-old with a record. He and Norton will miss years with their children and once they get out, they may lose everything from public assistance (which they’ll probably need after years of not working) to voting rights.

Maybe Torres’s sentence makes sense. There are no easy answers for what punishment is enough, and given his behavior and its timing, one could certainly make the case that he deserves every bit of what he got.

But consider that in Georgia, the twenty years he got is the same as the maximum sentence for child molestation or aggravated battery (crippling a limb or disfiguring someone,) though about five years less than the penalty for selling, manufacturing or possessing 28 grams of heroin. As the number of offences carrying 20 years increases, one gets the impression of a system unmoored from any coherent retributive or rehabilitate rationale, that blindly lashes out with ever-increasing brutality without thinking about what losing 20 years actually means.

Jose Torres and Kayla Norton committed a disgraceful act. But to hand out a sentence comparable to what one might get for molesting a child, or crippling someone for life, seems more indicative of a justice system that has lost its perspective than one concerned with any kind of moral theory of punishment.

 

20 Comments on this post.

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  • David Meyer Lindenberg
    2 March 2017 at 10:25 am - Reply

    Sam, you have an uncanny gift for looking beyond the surface appeal of this kind of thing and exposing what it means to lose years of your life. I was dismayed to see so many liberal and progressive “reformers” cheer this outcome, and I hope your post will come as a shock to any of these people that read us.

  • Jamie Starr
    2 March 2017 at 1:08 pm - Reply

    Sam Bieler, thank you for your thoughts and viewpoint. I find this article interesting in that the main argument is that these two people who were committing these criminal acts might miss life milestones. They had a choice in the matter and they made the wrong one. And it wasn’t the first time they made the wrong one.

    To go ahead and state the obvious, if these two had been black and pointed a gun at white children while shouting threats, they would have simply been labeled thugs and lost in the prison system without a second thought. And rightly so. (Yes, I played the race card. But considering that this is a racially motivated crime, it’s totally appropriate). When you commit crimes, you should pay the price. From what I understand, aggravated assault alone can carry a sentence of up to 15 years. The man got 13, plus seven on probation so he actually got less than the max.

    To put it another way, if they were black and defending the Pan-African flag in the same manner, would you feel the same? Would you have even written this article? What if the child that was on the business end of that firearm Torres held had been YOUR child or loved one? Would you still be concerned about them being in prison and missing someone else’s high school graduation? Let’s be honest, if it had been YOUR family member, you would not have a second thought about this man and woman losing their right to vote.

    On another note, the David Meyer Lindenberg comment seems rather hypocrital for a conservative who supposedly laud themselves on “law and order”. The sad reality of such statements is that strong sentences should be only for one segment of society and not the other. For the record, I am neither liberal nor conservative because as the comedian Carlos Mencia says “I don’t want to be wrong 50% of the time.”

    What I find even more disconcerting is that NO WHERE in your post or David Meyer Lindenberg’ s is either of you looking at it from the perspective of the eight year old child whose party was interrupted. What do you think THAT child will have to deal with for the rest of his life as the child reflects of this party? Nor do I see anywhere in your article the mercy and compassion extended by the mother of that child who told the pair that she FORGAVE them during the sentence hearing. When you look beneath the surface, you must look at ALL perspectives, not just the one that supports your agenda.

    • David Meyer Lindenberg
      2 March 2017 at 1:15 pm - Reply

      The distinction between arguing that less punishment is appropriate and none is appropriate is one that, sadly, continues to be lost on many people.

      • Jamie Starr
        2 March 2017 at 2:43 pm - Reply

        Not at all. I think that your argument would be better suited for a case like Marissa Alexander, charged with firing a warning shot at the ceiling while in the same room with an admittedly abusive ex-husband who also threatened her life. No one was killed or injured but she was sentenced to 20 years for that action. Eventually, she was released after serving 5 years and her case actually inspired a new state law authorizing warning shots in certain scenarios.

        In this instance, the lives of Norton and Torres were not in danger but they opted to make bad choices anyway and brought retribution onto themselves.

        • David Meyer Lindenberg
          2 March 2017 at 5:17 pm - Reply

          Your reply is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. Arguably, in Alexander’s case, no punishment was warranted. Torres and Norton deserve to be punished, but not this severely.

          • Jamie Starr
            2 March 2017 at 5:30 pm -

            Then you and I are obviously not viewing it from the same perspective. But that’s fine, grown folks can disagree and still be respectful. Peace! 😉

        • Sound village
          5 March 2017 at 12:48 pm - Reply

          Brilliant! I applaud you, kind sir

    • Sam Bieler
      2 March 2017 at 1:57 pm - Reply

      Would I have written this article for an African American with a Pan-American flag? Well, when the prisoners at Vaughn Correctional Facility rioted, I asked that we resist the rush to punish (http://mimesislaw.com/fault-lines/what-comes-after-the-vaughn-prison-riot/15915). So yes, I resist the knee-jerk instinct to give everyone life plus cancer for their crimes at all points and regardless of how favored or disfavored the person on the receiving end is.

      Nor do I disagree that people should pay the price for their crimes. But when America is giving out an average of 3 years to every year in peer nations, I question whether the price has been set at the right level. Are Americans committing a burglary three times more evil that Germans or Dutch committing a burglary. The maximum penalty for most crimes (murder included) among many peer nations is 10 years, three least than Torres got for a crime that broke no arms and picked no pockets. I don’t ask us to be European, but when an American threat is more grievous than a Swedish or German murder, I begin to ask if we have lost the thread.

      If you say I need to pay for food, I agree with the premise. If you say Big Mac will cost me $1,000, I will suspect that this particular MacDonalds has lost its way. Just so, if you tell me people should pay for their crimes, I agree. If you tell me that an every widening array of acts should be life shattering, I begin to suspect that our justice system has lost its way.

      • Jamie Starr
        2 March 2017 at 2:26 pm - Reply

        I read your article on the prison riot and I applaud your insight. However, I see it as being apples and oranges. Those prisoners were protesting what they perceived to be injustices and deplorable conditions. What injustice did an eight year old at his party inflict on (an armed) Torres and Norton to justify the threat of getting shot and threats? None. It’s a false equivalency.

        Now, it may surprise you, but I will actually agree with you about some prison sentences and conditions being outrageous and excessive. If you haven’t already seen it, watch the brilliant documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay. That brought to light some ugly truths about our prison system that have been ignored for far too long.

        However, in this case, I simply don’t see it being applicable to these two. They had opportunities to stop with their foolish and dangerous behavior and chose not to do so. What if he had actually pulled that trigger on that day on that firearm that he was carelessly displaying? This would be a very different conversation.

        • Mario Machado
          2 March 2017 at 2:53 pm - Reply

          But Torres didn’t pull the trigger. No need to delve into what could’ve happened. This isn’t the place for an exercise in the hypothetical. The jury voted guilty on 3 counts of aggravated assault, and the judge handed down the sentence. Sam gave you his take on it, and in the process made people better informed.

          Same goes for your questions about the boy being Sam’s kid, whether he would’ve still wrote the article, etc. It’s all babble that doesn’t contribute to a not-stupid discussion about the cases.

          And you’re not getting any points by quoting an insufferable, joke-stealing clown like Mencia.

          • Jamie Starr
            2 March 2017 at 3:07 pm -

            But he DID pull a firearm out without cause. Yes, Sam gave his take on it and I gave mine. Whether I am “better informed” is subjective. If you see it differently, that’s your right. The same with the “babble” comment. It’s only “babble” because you disagree. And that’s fine to disagree, but it doesn’t discount what I said. And slyly labeling what I said as “stupid” degenerates your point, whatever it may be. 😉

            I’m not looking for “points” from you, Mario. My bills get paid just fine without them. 😉

        • Sam Bieler
          2 March 2017 at 2:59 pm - Reply

          Respectfully, I would say that who did what worse is in the eyes of the beholder. Fault Lines attracts a higher class of reader (sometimes) but read some of the comments about Vaughn on some of the popular media websites and you’ll find a host of people for whom that Vaughn riot was the epitome of lawless disorder meriting the full might of the system. You see injustice in Torres and Norton, they see it in prisoners who they decry as ungrateful thugs, and whose actions led to an officer’s death. Everyone prefers harsher sentences for their disfavored groups. Some categories are necessary but this quickly becomes a slippery analysis, especially when treatment is predicated on values rather than conduct. All it takes is a change of executive for the disfavored group to change and on that day, every tactic used against the old disfavored group can be wielded against the new one.

          If he shot a child, it would certaintly be a different conversation. But that’s true of any crime on earth: the difference between a strong-arm robbery and felony murder might be how weak your victim’s heart is. The difference between depraved heart homicide and a DUI might be how many cars are on the road or whether your victim put on a seatbelt. They did chose their acts. However, as it applies against them for what they did, it should also apply for what they did not do, namely, actually commit any physical harm. Again, I’m not arguing that they should not be punished, but differentiation on the basis of what could have happened or whose act is righteous and whose isn’t will make for a dangerous system indeed.

          • Jamie Starr
            2 March 2017 at 3:15 pm -

            And again, believe it or not, we are on the same page (sort of). I did not advocate for a stronger sentence as they did not take anyone’s life. I am simply saying that they got what they deserve. I don’t disfavor Torres and Norton for exercising their free speech, though I may not agree with what they have to say. Nor do I necessarily AGREE with the prisoners who rioted. I was simply stating the actions from their point of view. It is possible to state a case from someone’s view without necessarily believing them to be in the right.

            I think that you’re a bright guy, Sam. And I do enjoy a strong debate with people that give me different perspectives.

        • MarK M.
          2 March 2017 at 3:00 pm - Reply

          Coulda woulda shoulda. If aunts had nuts, they’d be uncles. “pulling the trigger” would be a different crime. That’s not what Torres was being sentenced for. This was a threat. No one can rationally suggest that a threat to do harm is not located at a different (lower) level than than actually inflicting harm on the continuum of scale applicable to criminal conduct. Perspective is a necessary component in crafting an appropriate sentence. Although it may feel snug and safe to impose life plus cancer on “those” people whenever they prove fallible, there comes a point in time where such a practice is no longer sustainable.

          • Jamie Starr
            2 March 2017 at 3:24 pm -

            I am REALLY trying to see what your point is here, but I’ll go ahead and give it a shot with my best guess.

            I am fully aware what Torres got his sentence for so no need for you to point that out to me. My point was that he created an environment were something worse could have happened once he unnecessarily put his hands on that firearm. If you don’t see it that way, you have that option. I disagree. I was taught that you don’t pull a gun unless you plan to use it. Those kids at the party had no idea what his intentions were. THAT is fact and THAT was THEIR perspective. This isn’t about “those” people or trying to debate something like you’re in a class of a first year law school debate. This is about taking the consequences of your actions. Torres and Norton are dealing with theirs now. And the sentence was crafted within the appropriate confines AND perspective of the law. 😉

  • RICHARD KOPF
    3 March 2017 at 8:35 am - Reply

    Sam,

    A thought provoking post.

    One could hold a good seminar regarding all the theories of punishment based on your post. Example, What length of sentence will generally deter other drunken rednecks, some with guns?

    All the best.

    RGK

  • Rick
    3 March 2017 at 4:31 pm - Reply

    I voted for Obama twice and then Clinton (after Bernie lost the nomination). I’d consider myself a progressive.

    I’m appalled at this sentence. They were idiots, but they aren’t killers or abusers. A year of probation makes sense to me. I sincerely hope no one is “cheering” this outcome.

    What can be done to lessen the sentence? Is an appeal or re-trial possible?

  • Anon
    4 March 2017 at 11:31 pm - Reply

    Aren’t we missing an important variable, namely their criminal histories?
    If Torres’s PSR has three or four pages of “Assaults on a Female,” DUI, Harassment, Reckless Driving, Theft, Possession with Intent, etc. — as is usually the case when someone gets tonned — it’s very different than the unlikely case this is his first offense in an otherwise productive life.
    As for Norton, it’s hard to think of another case where evidence of remorse would have been more welcome and made more of a difference. Her “that wasn’t [the real] me” bullshit, however, is the opposite of remorse. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for someone who so thoroughly fails to realize and acknowledge her own shitbaggery.

  • Dana
    5 March 2017 at 3:52 am - Reply

    Since you don’t like the sentences these two received, lobby the state legislature of the state in which they were sentenced and try to get those sentencing guidelines changed.

    Instead of running off at the mouth.

  • Dave
    5 March 2017 at 2:14 pm - Reply

    I take exception to the use of “neither broke legs nor picked pockets” as a suggestion that the victims suffered no “real” harm. Living in fear is a “real” harm. Spending your life wondering if someone will”pull the trigger” next time is a “real” harm. Will the 8 yr. old serve a life sentence of fear? That would be a lot longer than the sentences you lament.