The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Arbery case is heinous, but his killers’ sentences are extreme

In this photo combination, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan and Gregory McMichael, all convicted in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. (AP)

David A. Singleton is the executive director of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center and a professor at the Salmon P. Chase College of Law at Northern Kentucky University.

As a human being, I felt nauseated watching the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot to death by three White men who had hunted him down as he jogged through a Brunswick, Ga., neighborhood. As a Black man, I feared that Arbery’s killers would escape justice before an almost all-White jury in a state court. And as a political progressive committed to dismantling white supremacy, I was relieved when the jury found Arbery’s killers guilty of murder.

Yet the punishments the three men received — in the state case, life in prison for William “Roddie” Bryan, who joined the pursuit of Arbery and recorded the incident with his cellphone, and life in prison without parole for Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who fired the fatal shots; and just this week in the federal case, two more life sentences plus additional years for the McMichaels and 35 years for Bryan — left me questioning whether such lengthy sentences are what justice requires. As a former public defender who now works to end mass incarceration and the extreme sentences that contribute to it, I believe the answer is clear: no.

This article was featured in the Opinions A.M. newsletter. Sign up here for a digest of opinions in your inbox six days a week.

The United States has distinguished itself as the world’s largest incarcerator. With more than 2 million people behind bars, we lead the world in the percentage of the population that is in prison. Meanwhile, the racial composition of our jails and prisons reflects our failure to achieve racial justice in this country. In Ohio, where I live and practice law, Black people make up 13 percent of the total population but approximately 45 percent of the state’s prison population. Similar patterns exist across the country.

Contrary to what many believe, mass incarceration is not the result of locking lots of people up for low-level, nonviolent crimes. According to such sentencing experts as Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis, life and other extreme sentences are the real drivers of the 500 percent increase in the prison population over the past 40 years. In their book “The Meaning of Life: The Case for Abolishing Life Sentences,” Mauer and Nellis note that one out of seven people in prison in the United States has been sentenced to life. They say that lengthy sentences make no sense from a public safety perspective, given that most people age out of committing violent crimes by their mid-20s. Additionally, continuing to imprison people long past the time when they can be safely released is expensive, especially when they are elderly.

But the economic costs of mass incarceration are not the only costs. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson and Sister Helen Prejean, people should not be defined forever by the worst things they’ve done. But a life sentence, especially life without parole, does just that. When we keep people incarcerated who have transformed themselves behind bars, are no longer dangerous, and have the potential to be productive citizens, we all lose.

The Ohio Justice & Policy Center’s Beyond Guilt project seeks to free people excessively punished who admitted to their guilt, have typically served at least 10 years in prison, and who have demonstrated their rehabilitation and fitness to return to society. Since the project’s launch in 2019, we have obtained the release of more than 40 people, many of whom were serving life sentences for murder.

One of the first of these was Angelo Robinson, who served 22 years in prison for murder and drug trafficking. His transformation behind bars persuaded us to accept his case, and the prosecutor agreed to assist us in securing his release. Today, Robinson works as a machinist at a tool factory, he is a straight-A student at the local community college, and he owns his own home. He was punished for his crime; and now he is living, breathing proof that there is much more to incarcerated people’s stories than their guilt.

So, what does this mean for the three White men who killed Arbery? Under their current sentences, the McMichaels will die in prison, while Bryan, who is 52, won’t even be considered for release until he is 82. The system that imposed those sentences is the same system that sentences Black people such as Robinson to extreme punishment. It is a system we should work to reform.

If we are to end mass incarceration, state and federal authorities must eliminate such draconian punishment and enact laws that allow judges to revisit sentences based on the incarcerated person’s demonstrated rehabilitation and fitness to live in society. Meanwhile, although I am relieved that Arbery’s murderers are being held accountable, I hope they will someday be released — after they have served an appropriate period of their sentences and demonstrated their fitness to return to society.