A Wayne County Superior Court Judge faces eleventy million years in jail! Well, not really, but to hear WRAL reporter Cullen Browder talk, you’d think Arnold Jones was going away for good. To wit:
Jones faces a maximum of 37 years in federal prison if convicted of all charges, prosecutors said, but a sentence that long would be unlikely.
Browder does a better job than most reporters. Oftentimes reporters trot out the huge potential sentences when reporting on the indictment of this or that public figure. But Browder acknowledges that a 37 year sentence is “unlikely.” That’s one word. Its-not-gonna-happen is a better way of saying it.
Why’s that? Los Angeles defense lawyer Ken White, proprietor of the popular Popehat blog, has written about this phenomenon before: a person is charged with a raft of crimes, and reporters tally up the maximum conceivable sentences, assume, in the argot of the jails, that they’ll be “box-carred” and report an astronomical sentence.
It’s true that a theoretical defendant situated differently from Judge Jones could be convicted of all charges, and could get maxed out. But that would be weird bordering on the absurd, especially in a case involving a public official and judge who, almost by definition, has no prior criminal history and will probably be able to marshall a ton of great character witnesses even if found guilty following a trial.
Wide-Ranging Statutory Punishments
Unlike North Carolina’s criminal system, the federal system’s criminal statutes have very broad sentencing ranges – for instance, 0 to 20, or 0 to 15, or 0 to 40 or 15 to life. In some cases, these ranges are all that really constrains a federal judge, especially in cases involving a bad actor who has committed multiple crimes, used violence, and shown a disregard for the rule of law.
But in many cases, federal judges defer to the sentencing guidelines in establishing an appropriate sentence. The guidelines, while advisory, are important to understanding the realistic sentence at play in this case, assuming that Judge Jones is in fact convicted.
While I don’t have access to all of the factors involved here, it’s conceivable that an offense level in this case would roughly end up at a 16, with a prior record level of I. The resulting sentencing range is something like between a year or two in prison, and that would be a reasonable expectation even if the judge were convicted of all counts following a trial. Then again, he could get probation.
Probation – or a not guilty! – is a LOT more likely than 37 years in prison.