While Indiana lawmakers rightly examine whether fewer low-level offenders should be sent to state prison, the release of an inmate who committed a heinous murder after serving just 25 years is another example that lawmakers should also study the other end of the sentencing spectrum.
In 1986, Robert Lee stabbed 31-year-old Ellen Marks in Bloomington, cut her body into pieces and put them in trash bags. Her head was never found.
Lee is scheduled to be released Saturday. Two months ago, William Spangler was released after serving 29 years for killing the Avilla town marshal, William Miner Jr.
Both were sentenced to 60 years in prison – which, at the time, was the maximum sentence for murder. Both were released much earlier because they received two days credit for each day they served without causing problems, a practice that began years ago in an effort to give prisoners incentive to follow the rules. Lee received additional time credit for earning multiple college degrees while in prison.
Some of the laws that allowed their early release have been rightly changed. Prosecutors now can seek life in prison without parole for murderers. The practice of giving prisoners additional credit for earning multiple degrees has been curtailed.
Still, releasing prisoners – particularly killers and other violent offenders – after serving half of their sentences makes the sentence misleading, particularly to victims’ families.
The state constitution requires sentencing to be based on the principles of reformation, and not of vindictive justice. And a case can be made that after serving an appropriate amount of time, reformed criminals – even killers – should be released and allowed to seek a productive life.
The issue isn’t so much whether 25 or 30 years is appropriate for a murder as it is truth in sentencing.
In the federal system and some other states, prisoners also receive good time credit – but are released after serving a higher percentage of their sentence, often about 85 percent.
For nearly three years, state lawmakers have been debating efforts to sentence people convicted of low-level, non-violent crimes to local jails and alternatives rather than state prison, wrongly stalling criminal code reform. It’s time lawmakers also look at how the worst offenders are sentenced.