By David M. Greenwald
On Friday, the parole board, after the prosecutors in Los Angeles did not oppose parole, recommended parole after 15 previous decisions to deny release for the famed Robert F. Kennedy assassinator.
Easy for me to say, I wasn’t born until four years after RFK was killed, but as a student of history, I often wonder what if—what if RFK had lived, he surely would have defeated Nixon, we would have been spared Watergate, the Southern Strategy, etc.
Six of his nine surviving children sent out a letter opposing release: “As children of Robert F. Kennedy, we are devastated that the man who murdered our father has been recommended for parole. Our father’s death is a very difficult matter for us to discuss publicly and for the past many decades we have declined to engage directly in the parole process.”
They write that they believe it “ignores the standards for parole of a confessed, first degree murderer in the state of California.”
They added that he “committed a crime against our nation and its people. He took our father from our family and he took him from America.”
Let me just say, as I type these words, I am deeply moved by them. The RFK assassination along with MLK a few months before and JFK five years before were a huge stain on the American consciousness.
Nevertheless, as I will argue here shortly, I think the move to release him on parole is the right one, though I expect Governor Newsom will reverse the decision.
My views on criminal legal matters have advanced very quickly over the last decade. A decade ago, I was probably still on the edge of public opinion on matters—opposed to the death penalty, in favor of deep reform. But as recently as 2012, I argued for LWOP (life without parole) as a viable alternative to the death penalty.
Now I oppose LWOP. There are certainly people who shouldn’t ever be released from prison, but those are a relative few and we can ascertain that in real time. Parole boards are notoriously conservative.
My thinking has really evolved on these matters. I would favor a system with the few truly dangerous people confined while the rest are put through extensive evidence-based programs, whether it is mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, restorative justice and then education and job training.
Do I believe in punishment? I think punishment is a relative term overall. Locking someone in a cage is not the only way to punish people. And it has been proven ineffective. Look at recidivism rates.
I think we have better tools at our disposal—and, ironically, cheaper ones.
So when we look at Sirhan Sirhan’s case, let us look at it for a second detached from the political implications and the impact on this nation and this world—after all, the impact cannot be undone.
But in the case of Sirhan, he has spent 53 years in prison. So we are not even talking about whether he was punished. Fifty-three years is longer than some of us have been alive.
We have done a lot of research and, more and more, we have learned about the notion of aging out of crime.
In a study, the National Research Council concluded, “Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”
This is an important point. There are truly dangerous people that really do need to spend their lives behind bars. But they are not the norm, they are the exception.
One approach I have seen is to limit sentences to 20 years—with exception in exceptional cases where there is a determined substantial threat to public safety.
The New York Times in an article, “Too Old to Commit Crime,” argues, “This proposal has little chance of becoming law. But a compelling case can be made for it nonetheless.”
They cite research by social scientists that shows “that all but the most exceptional criminals, even violent ones, mature out of lawbreaking before middle age, meaning that long sentences do little to prevent crime.”
The data is compelling: “Homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while arrest rates for forcible rape peak at 18. Some crimes, such as vandalism, crest even earlier, at age 16, while arrest rates for forgery, fraud and embezzlement peak in the early 20s. For most of the crimes the F.B.I. tracks, more than half of all offenders will be arrested by the time they are 30.”
Most criminal careers, as discovered in research by Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein, last for a duration of five to ten years.
Back to Sirhan.
To me the question we should be asking for incarceration decisions in general—is he a public safety threat?
The statistics for 77-year-olds is that they are not going to commit a crime. I’m sure people can pull up on Google plenty of exceptions, but for the most part, they are just that, exceptions.
We are thus paying at least $85,000 for a person to be incarcerated who is not a threat to society. The evaluations from experts have concluded he is unlikely to kill again.
Studies show that caring for aging prisoners creates large and growing expenses. And long sentences incur opportunity costs, as they divert resources from other public safety measures.
Moreover, he has a good record while in prison. He has not been accused of any serious violations of prison rules since 1972. That’s 49 years.
So what is to be gained from keeping him in a cage at this point? Revenge? Anger? Frustration? A nostalgic look at what might have been?
I sympathize. I understand the heartache of his children deprived their father. But from a systemic standpoint, our criminal system should be geared toward keeping people out of cages unless we have no choice. And at this point, we have a choice and it’s a relatively easy one to make.