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Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger faced a statutory range of five to 99 years for the shooting death of Botham Jean. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Five to 99 years is a broad spectrum. Based on that range alone, the sentence has been perceived by many as lenient. Statistically, it was probably a somewhat lenient sentence, but not by much.
Unlike the federal sentencing system, for which detailed data is available by offense and offender type, sentencing data from individual states is not as accessible. Texas releases some statistics on sentencing: in 2018, according to one report, some 478 convicted offenders were sentenced to prison terms, while 15 offenders actually received a probationary sentence.
The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics attempts to collect and analyze information on crime and punishment at all levels of government, including states. According to one BJS report on time served in prison nationwide in 2016, offenders sentenced for murder or non-negligent manslaughter served an average of 15 years in state prison before their initial release. The median time served in prison for murder was 13.4 years.
According to the same report, 96 percent of violent offenders released in 2016, including 70 percent of those sentenced for murder or non-negligent manslaughter, served less than 20 years before their initial release from state prison. The 2016 report indicates that offenders serving prison terms for murder or non-negligent manslaughter served an average of 57 percent of their maximum sentence length before being released.
Guyger’s sentence was on the low end of her overall range of five to 99 years, but it was only a few years less than the national average and median. Of course, nationwide statistics can be deceptive, and they don’t take into account the contextual features that make every case and every defendant unique.
Guyger was never going to receive the same sentence as, say, a repeat felon who tortured multiple victims. And yet, her sentence may be higher than many who are convicted of non-negligent manslaughter.
Sentencing trends are different in different parts of the country, and they are even different between the state and federal systems within a given state. It’s hard to say whether Guyger’s sentence is an anomaly nationwide because it’s hard to say ultimately what the average sentence nationwide is for someone who did exactly what she did.