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Federal guidelines allowed a 27-year prison sentence. A jury suggested 14 months.

A jury box.
A jury box.
Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images

Juries that find defendants guilty of drug trafficking or distributing child pornography also say government-suggested prison sentences are far too harsh.

The Marshall Project looked at this occurrence in a story last week, noting the experiences of judges who turned to juries for sentencing advice.

US District Judge Mark Bennett, of Iowa, explained his observations:

"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," he says, "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."

"That goes to show," he says, "that the notion that the sentencing guidelines are in line with societal mores about what constitutes reasonable punishment — that's baloney."

Other judges echoed Bennett's story to the Marshall Project.

This past year in Cleveland, a jury found Ryan Collins guilty of possessing, receiving, and distributing child pornography. Prosecutors wanted a sentence of 20 years in prison, and federal sentencing guidelines would have allowed as much as 27 years. But when US District Judge James Gwin asked jury members for their recommendation, he found they suggested about 14 months (on average). Heeding the advice as best he could, Gwin sentenced Collins to the statutory minimum sentence of five years.

Harsh sentences helped lead to mass incarceration

Incredibly harsh prison sentences for all types of crimes are one of the reasons the US shot up to the world's leading incarcerator over the past few decades. This means that people are not only being locked up in greater numbers, but they're also staying imprisoned for longer.

(The Sentencing Project)

Many criminal justice experts and reformers say extreme sentences need to be cut down, even for violent crimes. Research suggests people are much less likely to commit crime when they're older, so letting them out of prison five, 10, or 20 years down the line — instead of 30 or 40 years, or never — might not pose a significant threat to public safety.

"Crime is a young man's endeavor," Brian Elderbroom, senior fellow at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, said in December. "It's not surprising that someone who commits a crime at a young age would be a completely different person by the time they're in their 30s."

And based on the experiences of judges interviewed by the Marshall Project, the harsh sentences may not even reflect societal values.

Further reading: 16 theories for why crime plummeted in the US.