Monday, November 28, 2011

The Subjective Factor in Time Measurement

Doing time.

That’s one way to refer to serving a jail or prison sentence. For sentences to a term of incarceration, even indeterminate ones, are measured in numbers of months or years.

In an indeterminate sentencing system, the assigned number of years is typically a range. For example, on a certain offense the range could be from one year up to as many as five. It’s up to the parole board whether to let someone out before the maximum term is up.

In a determinate or structured sentencing system, what you see is generally what you get. If someone is sentenced to a five-year term, that’s what they are supposed to serve.

In some states, this is slightly qualified by assigning a certain percentage of the sentence to be served in the community on supervised release. In Minnesota, this percentage is one-third. Other structured sentencing states use different percentages.

These raw numbers, however, are merely the quantifiable, objective side of sentencing. There’s also the subjective experience, for the person sentenced, of what it feels like to serve the time.

I know, I know: “If you can’t do the time / don’t do the crime.” That simplistic mantra from the 80s has been used to try to justify a lot of heavy-handed sentencing over the years. It should really be the subject of a future post.

The point I want to make here is that, perhaps inevitably, the subjective experience of serving time — how long or short a sentence seems — will vary from inmate to inmate.

I was reminded of this while rereading a John D. MacDonald detective novel from the 70s called The Scarlet Ruse. MacDonald’s hero, Travis McGee, is trying to fend off a likely assault by a mob figure that could come at any time.
Awaiting the attack, McGee consults his watch: “Every ten minutes I looked at my watch and found that one more minute had gone by.”

In other words, in certain circumstances, the subjective experience of time can stretch out to be much longer than what the objective measure might imply.

Is that what it is often like for inmates doing time in jail or prison?

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