It’s not very often the concept of restorative justice gets much play outside scholarly publications or reformist criminal justice circles, so first, some credit for Max Fisher at The Atlantic for giving it an earnest look last week. In seeking to explain Norway’s seemingly measly twenty-one-year sentence for remorseless, mass-murdering white supremacist Anders Breivik—a sentence that is certain to be extended to last the rest of his life—Fisher casts a critical eye on the underlying philosophy that animates that country’s sentencing practices, finding it to be “radically different” from what we’re used to in the United States. When it comes to criminal sentencing, he notes, the United States favors a retributive model—in which an offender must be duly punished for his crimes—over a restorative model that “emphasizes healing: for the victims, for the society, and, yes, for the criminal him or herself.”
“I don’t have an answer for which is better,” he says at the outset, acknowledging that his own sense of outrage over Breivik’s sentence—like that of many Americans—“hints at not just how different the two systems are, but how deeply we may have come to internalize our understanding of justice, which, whatever its merits, doesn’t seem to be as universally applied as we might think.”
This is true, and a promising place to start. The United States is uniquely punitive when it comes to sentencing compared to much of the rest of the world, whether the crime is murder or drug possession. Putting aside the death penalty, which lands us in dubious international company, in countries with life sentences on the books, prisoners are often eligible for release after a few decades. “Mexico will not extradite defendants who face sentences of life without parole,” the New York Times’s Adam Liptak noted in 2005 (Most of Latin America has no such sentence). “And when Mehmet Ali Agca, the Turkish gunman who tried to kill Pope John Paul II in 1981, was pardoned in 2000, an Italian judge remarked, ‘No one stays 20 years in prison.’ ”
The same article quoted Yale law professor James Q. Whitman, author of a book comparing US sentencing with Europe. “Western Europeans regard 10 or 12 years as an extremely long term, even for offenders sentenced in theory to life,” he said. Today, there are more than 41,000 people serving life without parole in the United States compared to fifty-nine in Australia, forty-one in England and thirty-seven in the Netherlands. That’s according to a study released this spring, which found that we are “in the minority of countries using several sentencing practices, such as life without parole, consecutive sentences, juvenile life without parole, juvenile transfer to adult courts, and successive prosecution of the same defendant by the state and federal government.” In the United States, prison sentences have gotten longer and longer—a sea change that Americans have come to accept relatively quickly (largely because the targets have been people of color). Just a few decades ago in high-incarceration states like Louisiana, lifers were eligible for release in ten and a half years. Today in Louisiana, there is no longer parole for lifers, and thus virtually no hope of release, ever. And when it comes to crimes prosecuted under the War on Drugs, three-strikes sentencing and mandatory minimums have not only sent people away for life for minor drug offenses—an anomaly compared to the rest of the world—they have led to a current reality in which the vast majority of people arrested on nonviolent drug charges plead guilty—whether they are or not—in order to avoid such draconian prison sentences, a decision that can have lifelong implications.