Chelsea Manning and the False Logic of Harsh Prison Sentences

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Chelsea Manning. Photo: US Army

While working as an Army intelligence analyst in 2010, Chelsea Manning leaked a wide array of American military and diplomatic secrets. Some of these leaked materials exposed war crimes; others served no apparent public interest, even as they (allegedly) disrupted America’s capacity to conduct diplomacy.

As punishment for violating the Army’s trust, Manning spent the next six years of her life moving in and out of solitary confinement, at a series of military prisons. Before her trial, she was held under conditions that the United Nations deemed “cruel and inhumane.” After her trial, she was held at a men’s prison, despite her status as a transgender woman. While there, she tried to kill herself multiple times.

On Tuesday, Barack Obama offered Manning his mercy. While the president did not pardon Manning for her crime, he chose to commute her sentence. Now, she will leave Fort Leavenworth this May, instead of some time in 2045.

Predictably, the move has inspired a fierce right-wing backlash. But because mainstream conservatives are often shy about arguing for vengeance as an end in itself, they’ve framed their aversion to mercy in pragmatic terms — the commutation will undermine our capacity to deter future leakers.

Paul Ryan said in a statement that the commutation “now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won’t be held accountable for their crimes.” The plain meaning of the speaker’s statement is that the years Manning has already served do not constitute accountability — and thus, her premature release will embolden future leakers.

Conservative foreign-policy analyst Max Boot echoed Ryan’s sentiment.

In an editorial titled, “Leniency for a Traitor,” the (ostensibly liberal) New York Daily News wrote that, “whether or not the 35-year term Manning was handed down in 2013 was correct, a mere seven years, a fifth of the sentence, is unjustifiably lenient.” The paper goes on to argue that the “pernicious interference of WikiLeaks” in the 2016 election illustrates the necessity of the American justice system being “especially sensitive to such crimes.”

In the Spectator, Douglass Murray wrote:

In pardoning [Manning], Barack Obama has sent out the message that if there is anyone in the U.S. Armed forces or intelligence services who doesn’t like something then they should not speak with a senior officer or keep their concerns within the service. No – instead anybody with any concerns should download the equivalent of truck-loads of the country’s secrets and ensure they are made available to the world. Preferably through the most hostile anti-American activists available. No country can effectively operate when it allows and encourages such behaviour.

Significantly, Murray misrepresents Obama’s action — he did not pardon Manning, but merely commuted her sentence. A pardon constitutes official forgiveness for an offense; a commutation does not. In concrete terms, then, Murray’s argument, like all the others cited here, is that abridging Manning’s sentence will encourage would-be “traitors.”

This may sound reasonable on its face. The notion that lengthy sentences are necessary to deter serious crimes is a central principle of the American justice system.

But when one applies this premise to Manning’s case, its irrationality becomes apparent. The question asked by those concerned about deterrence becomes self-answering: If the only punishment for leaking American secrets is more than six years in prison — including many months of being held under conditions that international law regards as torture — then what will stop other intelligence analysts from following in Manning’s footsteps?

Ostensibly, Paul Ryan believes that there are many people in the American military who would be willing to leak secrets if the punishment were nearly seven years in confinement — but would never dream of doing so if the penalty were 35 years.

It seems to me that the kind of person who would gladly accept the former punishment would not be deterred by the latter.

But we don’t need to rely on intuition. Criminological research suggests that draconian sentencing is not effective in deterring crime. According to the 2014 findings of the National Research Council, applying a mandatory minimum to a given offense does not reduce its prevalence. Severity of punishment upon conviction is simply far less important for deterrence than “certainty of apprehension” — people become much more likely to commit crimes when they have a reasonable expectation of getting away with them. By contrast, precisely how many years of life one can expect to lose — based on a careful reading of precedent and statute — has little influence on a would-be offender’s calculus.

But America’s criminal code assumes the opposite. In fact, the primary reason for our nation’s exceptionally high incarceration rate is our singular fondness for long prison sentences. As Michael Tonry, a leading authority on criminal-justice policy, has written, American prison sentences are “vastly harsher than in any other country to which the United States would ordinarily be compared.” And this isn’t just the product of our punitive attitude toward drug crimes: In other parts of the world, life sentences for murder are the exception; in the United States, they are the rule.

To create a more rational and humane criminal justice system, Americans will need to recognize that decades-long sentences are not a prerequisite for deterring serious offenses. If you are a conservative who deplores both Manning’s crime and mass incarceration, please consider the possibility that mercy is not incompatible with law and order.

Chelsea Manning and the False Logic of Harsh Sentencing