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The New Zealand mosque shooter could be the country’s first person sent to prison for life

The rarity of life sentences may be strange by US standards, but it’s typical in much of the developed world.

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The New Zealand flag is flown at half-mast on a Parliament building following the March 15 mass shootings in Christchurch.
The New Zealand flag is flown at half-mast on a Parliament building following the March 15 mass shootings in Christchurch.
Marty Melville/AFP via Getty Images

New Zealand may sentence the gunman who killed 50 people at mosques in the city of Christchurch to life in prison without the possibility of parole. According to the New York Times and Al Jazeera, this would be the first time the country has imposed such a sentence. The previous longest prison sentence without parole was 30 years.

To an American, this might sound shocking. We sentence people to life in prison all the time — and not only for murders or mass killings. In The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences, Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis point to research suggesting the US accounts for 40 percent of the world’s total life sentences.

“A comprehensive 2016 international analysis of life imprisonment found that the number of people serving life imprisonment in the United States is higher than the combined total in the other 113 countries surveyed,” Mauer and Nellis write.

It’s yet another example of how the US incarcerates far more people than any other country in the world — even more than authoritarian nations like China, Cuba, and Russia.

Particularly in European countries — and other nations, like New Zealand, that have built their justice systems based on European models — the worst prison sentences tend to span two or three decades. Norway even puts a cap on most prison sentences at 21 years, with a higher cap only for terrorism and genocide.

That’s essentially what New Zealand is doing: It’s making a big exception to its typical tradition of prison sentences in response to terrorism.

While this may sound strange to us, there’s good evidence that European countries and New Zealand have the right idea. Because as much as America carries out much harsher penalties, there’s no evidence that these harsher punishments actually keep us safer. In fact, the US has the highest murder rate among developed nations — even as it imposes much longer prison sentences.

There’s a good explanation for that.

Why life sentences are unnecessary: People age out of crime

The core point here is what’s known as the age-crime curve. It shows that people tend to age out of crime. In their mid- to late teens and early 20s, people are much, much likelier to commit a crime than they are in their 30s and especially 40s and on.

Here’s the age-crime curve for robbery in 2014, taken from Mauer and Nellis’s book:

A chart showing the age-crime curve. Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis/The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences

As the chart makes clear, a person’s propensity to commit a crime — in this case, a robbery — is at its highest around 20 years old. But it drops quickly after that. In his 30s, a person’s chances of committing a robbery drop to 25 percent of what they were at 20. In his 40s, the chances drop to less than 12.5 percent. In his 60s, the risk nearly vanishes.

There are exceptions, like lifelong serial killers. But they’re few and far between.

Virtually no one in criminology disputes the age-crime curve. Nancy La Vigne, vice president of justice policy at the Urban Institute, previously told me it’s “pretty well established in the literature.”

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to most people, particularly those already in their 30s, 40s, or above. Think about how likely you were as a teen to break the law, with underage drinking, using illegal drugs, shoplifting, getting into fights, and so on. Now think about how likely you are to do that today, assuming you’re older. Regardless of whether you got caught in your teen years, you are likely an embodiment of the age-crime curve.

John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University and the author of Locked In: The True Causes of Mass Incarceration and How to Achieve Real Reform, previously told me there are a few reasons for the age-crime curve.

“Some of it is physical and hormonal: Testosterone levels go up, testosterone levels go down; violence goes up, violence goes down. Some of it is purely physical: Even if I was as aggressive now as I was 20 years ago, I’m 44 — things are slow, things ache a bit more,” he explained. “But some of it is also social: Getting married is a pathway out of crime; finding a career is a pathway out of crime. So the longer we keep people in prison, the longer we tend to undermine the ways these people mature and age out of crime as they get older.”

Other evidence backs this up. In 2017, David Roodman of the Open Philanthropy Project conducted an extensive review of the research on longer prison sentences. He concluded that “tougher sentences hardly deter crime, and that while imprisoning people temporarily stops them from committing crime outside prison walls, it also tends to increase their criminality after release. As a result, ‘tough-on-crime’ initiatives can reduce crime in the short run but cause offsetting harm in the long run.”

In short, longer prison sentences can actually make people more likely to commit crimes in the long term.

At the same time, locking people up for long periods of time is very costly. There’s the actual financial cost of putting people in prison, which the Prison Policy Initiative estimated at $182 billion for the US in 2017. There’s also the social cost of people being ripped away from their families and communities; as one example, the New York Times calculated in 2015 that for every 100 black women not in jail or prison in America, there are only 83 black men — what amounts to 1.5 million “missing” men who can’t be there for their kids, family, or community while incarcerated.

It’s these kinds of costs, along with the evidence that long prison sentences are ineffective, that drive other countries to be more cautious in their use of very long prison sentences.

So in New Zealand, they’re saving the use of life without parole for a person who committed a crime that goes far away from the ordinary. Maybe America could learn from that.

For more on this topic, read my case for capping prison sentences at 20 years.