What is the Longest Possible Prison Sentence for a Single Crime?

Tarin K. asks: What is the single worst crime you could commit, as in, what singular crime would net you the longest prison sentence?

justiceWith the long-running debate over mandatory minimum sentences over the past couple of decades, it’s easy to forget that judges and juries often have a great deal of discretion when it comes to imposing criminal sentences for individual crimes. So while we can’t say what single crime will definitively result in the longest prison sentence, we can look at the crimes that have resulted in the records for the longest prison sentences in the United States and around the globe.

To begin with, the longest prison sentence ever imposed was 141,078 years. It was given in 1989 in Thailand to Chamoy Thipyaso and each of her seven accomplices for defrauding more than 16,000 Chinese investors as a part of a massive Ponzi scheme. (see: What is a Ponzi Scheme and Why Do We Call It That?)

On the other hand, in the U.S. the longest sentence for some form of corporate fraud was only 845 years. This was handed down in 2000 to Sholam Weiss, for his role in the collapse of National Heritage Life Insurance. By contrast, Bernie Madoff was only given 150 years for his 2009 conviction of defrauding thousands in a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme.

The second and third longest prison sentences (for any crime), globally, were given to Jamal Zougam (42,924 years) and Emilio Suárez Trashorras (49,922 years) for their roles in the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

As for the longest prison term imposed in the United States, it was given in 1994 to the Oklahoma child rapist Charles Schott Robinson who was convicted of six counts of rape garnering him 5,000 years in prison each- a whopping 30,000 year sentence.

Also in Oklahoma, Darron B. Anderson and Allan W. McLaurin each had in the thousands of years ranges of prison time imposed for the kidnapping, robbery and rape of an elderly woman. Anderson was initially only sentenced to 2,200 years, but upon his second trial (he appealed and won a new one), that second jury imposed a sentence of 11,250 years. McLaurin was initially sentenced to 21,250 years, but the appellate court reduced it to a mere 500 years.

In 1981, after killing his wife, mother-in-law and an unlucky visitor to their home, Dudley Wayne Kyzer was sentenced to 10,000 years, along with a couple of life sentences, by an Alabama court. He has been up for, and denied, parole nine times.

The longest prison sentence imposed in Australia was given to Martin Bryant in 1996 for the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre where he killed 35 and injured 23 others. His sentence included 1,035 years without parole plus 35 life sentences, one for each life he took.

Large prison sentences continue to be imposed today. Cleveland’s Ariel Castro received, as part of a plea deal in 2013, life plus 1,000 years for the kidnapping, rape and murder (for the intentional inducing of miscarriages) of three women over a 10-plus year period. He hanged himself in prison in 2013.

The infamous Aurora theater shooter, James Holmes, was given 12 life sentences plus an additional 3,318 years in 2015 for killing 12 people and injuring another 70.

Yet another extremely lengthy sentence doled out in 2015 was given to Billy Godfrey of Rolla, Missouri. His punishment included 35 life sentences for convictions of 35 counts of statutory sodomy. His victims, assaulted between 1995 and 1999, were between the ages of 8 and 13 at the time of Godfrey’s crimes.

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Bonus Facts:

  • The United States Congress’ ability to impose mandatory minimum sentences is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, as part of its authority to establish criminal offenses and punishments. The first U.S. mandatory minimum sentence, included in the 1790 Crimes Act, was death, and it was imposed for treason, murder, piracy, certain forgeries and abetting a capital convict. Other crimes identified in the act carried mandatory prison terms of one, three and seven years. Over the years, other federal crimes were established with mandatory minimums, but the practice began to ramp up in the second half of the 20th century.
  • In accordance with the nation’s concern over drug use and crimes, Congress enacted the Narcotic Drugs Import and Export Act in 1951, which imposed mandatory minimum penalties of 5 to 10 years for different violations of controlled substances laws. These mandatory minimums were nearly all repealed for drug crimes in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, but as attitudes about sentencing changed again in the 1980s, more crimes, including violent offenses and drug crimes, were given mandatory minimum sentences.
  • Triggered by the high-profile death of the Boston Celtics’ first-round draft pick Len Bias from a cocaine overdose, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed harsh minimum penalties including up to life in prison.
  • Today, more than 50% of all federal prisoners are serving time under a mandatory minimum sentence for a drug offense. Extremely costly, and not necessarily effective at deterring crime (for instance, between 1986 and 1992, the availability of LSD and heroin to high school students actually rose), many, including federal judges, have begun to question their efficacy. Accordingly, in 2015, Republican Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) and Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott (Va.) have introduced a bill to reform mandatory minimum sentences.
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  • Miriam

    I’m a little confused. Does it make a difference how long your sentence is if it’s already longer than you’ll live and you have no option of leaving for good behavior (whatever the correct term is?)

    Practically speaking, how do they impose a 20’000 year sentence, and how is it any different from a 500 year one?

    Thanks!