When sentences span centuries

Fulton County Judge Constance Russell stacked life sentence after life sentence after life sentence on rapist Marvin Martin three months ago, ensuring that the 33-year-old truck driver will never be free.

He will have to serve 360 years in prison before he can even be considered for parole.

Martin’s is an impossible sentence. But it is indicative of the path some judges are now taking, suggesting a lack of trust that their sentences will mean little if prison crowding continues or if the state’s finances force early releases. Or if the presently conservative Pardons and Paroles Board shifts to more liberal stance on crime and punishment.

They fear a repeat of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Georgia had to open prison doors to avoid a lawsuit. Other states are already facing the same option.

“It’s a trend,” University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson said of an apparent uptick in prison sentences that extend many times longer than a lifetime.

Evidence is anecdotal.

Former DeKalb County Deputy Derrick Yancey will be 111 before the Parole Board can consider him for clemency, assuming he lives that long. Yancey murdered his wife and a day laborer and then tried to claim Marcial Cax-Puluc killed Linda Yancey and that he simply killed the worker in self-defense. DeKalb Superior Court Judge Linda Harper sentenced Yancey to two consecutive life sentences plus 65 years.

Fulton County Courthouse murderer Brian Nichols most likely has the longest prison sentence in the Georgia system. For killing four people, Judge James Bodiford gave him four back-to-back sentences of life without parole, seven life sentences with parole also to be served one at a time and 485 years for all his other crimes on March 11, 2005 — kidnapping, aggravated assault and escape.

Judges are reluctant to talk about their reasons for stacking on the time.

But prosecutors and defense attorneys say one purpose of insurmountable sentences is to reinforce to the state Board of Pardons and Paroles that these are the worst of the worst criminals and should never be free again.

“The judge is basically giving an indication as to the severity of the offense and is sending a clear message as to what he feels is appropriate,” said Bob Keller, a former Clayton County DA and now one of five Parole Board members.

“It’s all going to boil down to why did the judge think this was an appropriate sentence?” Keller said. “Is it a pile-on situation? He [the judge] didn’t just pull it out of thing air. Something prompted it.”

Nationwide, prison systems are overflowing, and there is no available money to resolve those problems.

For example, on May 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 38,000 to 46,000 prisoners should be released from California’s prisons and about 9,000 others moved to local jails to relieve dangerous overcrowding.

It’s an old problem that never seems to go away, and lawmakers and parole boards face fierce recriminations if they suggest an alternative that could be viewed as too easy on criminals.

The last time Georgia tried something drastic was in 1989. Threatened with a lawsuit that could have put Georgia’s prisons under the control of federal courts, then-Gov. Joe Frank Harris created an early release program to buy time until an unprecedented building program effort could be competed. About 8,200 nonviolent felons and first-time drug offenders were released early to create room for the more dangerous criminals.

The measure drew criticism from district attorneys and legislators. Twenty-two years later, judges are making sure some of those more dangerous criminals are never set free.

“There are very bad people who don’t need to be walking free among us. They’ve committed such heinous crimes they don’t need to be out,” Clayton County District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson said.

That is the reason, she believes, judges and prosecutors are using sentences longer than any human can serve: to inform those who hold the keys to the prison system that these criminals are off-limits.

Presently, Georgia’s system is slightly over capacity. The Department of Corrections is holding about 49,420 convicted felons while the system has room for 46,554 men and women — 35,527 in 30 state prisons, 5,963 inmates in two private prisons and another 5,064 in low-security county prisons.

It is unknown how many of these inmates have prison sentences that exceed life expectancy many times over. Neither the Department of Corrections nor the state Board of Pardons and Paroles tracks these inmates.

“You’re seeing much, much more of the stacking,” said attorney Sharon Hopkin, who specializes in appellate work for those already in prison.

But Carlson, the law professor, wondered if it was getting out of hand.

He referenced a case in Texas in which the judge handed down a 2,500-year sentence. An appellate court opined “these excessive sentences have made Texas sentencing the laughing stock of the nation.”

There already are similar concerns being raised in Georgia.

“We need to take a strong look at these sentences that, for the purposes of public relations, have been piled on,” Carlson said. “What is being done here, if it continues, will look ludicrous to the public. ... The trend toward enhanced punishments needs to be weighed against several factors, including costs of confinement as well as the need to shape a sentence which meets confinement objectives without overkill.”

Gov. Nathan Deal created a 13-member commission to recommend sentencing changes because, he said, there are “too many people behind bars.” The Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform had its first meeting Tuesday and heard many of the same warnings on overcrowding sounded repeatedly over the past two decades.

The special council’s recommendations are due to the governor by Nov. 1.

At the same time, the State Bar of Georgia has a Criminal Justice Reform Committee working in tandem with the governor’s group.

Both panels include judges and prosecutors, but their conclusions may still be difficult for some segments of the criminal justice system to accept.

“You want to control it for the rest of the time and judges are that way,” said Rick Malone, who was a South Georgia prosecutor for two decades and is now executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.

“It’s a statement as to whether or not this person should ever get out. You hear horror stories about sending them home to die and six years later, he’s still out there and he commits another crime.”