Jacob Sullum, over at Reason's Hit and Run blog, has a very interesting post about a federal judge in Cleveland who, after a jury found a man guilty of receiving, possessing, and distributing child pornography, polled the jury for the jurors' view of a just sentence. The mandatory minimum was 5 years in prison, the sentence recommended by prosecutors was 20 years, and the term indicated by federal sentencing guidelines was 21 to 27 years.
I'll go into the jury's results more than Jacob did. Here's the link. As you can see, the mean recommended sentence was 14.5 months, the median was 8 months, the mode was 24 months, and the range was 0 to 60 months.
So the judge gave the defendant the lowest sentence he could give: 5 years. As you can see from the link, only one of 12 people who voted guilty thought this was just. Every other juror had a number substantially lower.
Interestingly, according to Judge Mark W. Bennett, a federal district court judge in Iowa, quoted in a piece by Eli Hager of The Marshall Project:
Every time I ever went back in the jury room and asked the jurors to write down what they thought would be an appropriate sentence, every time - even here, in one of the most conservative parts of Iowa, where we haven't had a "not guilty" verdict in seven or eight years - they would recommend a sentence way below the guidelines sentence.
You might wonder what I'm doing writing about this on an economics blog. It's for two reasons.
First, this issue has a huge economics aspect. Those who are consigned to prison for years take a huge hit on their lifetime income and wealth.
Second, for all the talk about the top 1%, there's not nearly enough talk about the bottom 1%. A large fraction of the bottom 1% are in prison, and a large fraction of that fraction should not be.