How Typical Is Bill Cosby's Sentence?

Cosby received three to 10 years in state prison. How does that measure up to other sentences?
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Bill Cosby is taken away in handcuffs after being sentenced to three to 10 years in his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on September 25th, 2018, in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Bill Cosby is taken away in handcuffs after being sentenced to three to 10 years in his sexual assault retrial at the Montgomery County Courthouse on September 25th, 2018, in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

On Tuesday, Pennsylvania Judge Steven O'Neill sentenced Bill Cosby to between three and 10 years in jail for three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault. Reactions have ranged from despair to joy: In the court of public opinion, factors like Cosby's age and blindness push some toward clemency. On the other hand, his alleged 60 other victims have led some to call for a harsher sentence.

But according to the data, Cosby's maximum sentence isn't far out of line with national averages for younger men.

Cosby already received some leniency: For sentencing purposes, the judge merged his three felony counts of aggravated indecent assault into one, bringing his maximum sentence down from 30 years to 10. For that charge, Pennsylvania state sentencing guidelines indicate 22 to 36 months in prison, but prosecutors asked the judge for five to 10 years. O'Neill came down on their side: "No one is above the law, and no one should be treated differently or disproportionally," he said. And though he's been accused by dozens of women, Cosby was only convicted and sentenced for the assault of Andrea Constand in 2004.

Nationally, Cosby's maximum sentence is close to average. In 2009, offenders convicted of felony rape in America's 75 largest counties earned, on average, 142 months in prison (nearly 12 years). Like Cosby, 49 percent of those people had no prior convictions, and the median prison sentence for that group was near the mean—and Cosby's maximum sentence—at 120 months, or 10 years.

Importantly, that sentence length has been steadily growing: In 2006, felons like Cosby—who were sentenced in state courts for sexual assaults—earned an average sentence of 106 months' imprisonment, or nearly nine years. That was up from 78 months in 2002 and 87 months in 2000. But while his minimum sentence, 36 months, is close to the top of the recommended range, it would be far below these averages.

One major difference between 81-year-old Cosby's sentencing and that of other cases is age. The average age at arrest for the group in the 2009 data was 33. And across the country, age affects sentencing: In 2009, Anthony Marshall—facing up to 25 years for stealing from his wealthy mother Brooke Astor—was sentenced to only one to three years, remained free during the appeal process, and ultimately served just two months. Marshall was freed through New York's "compassionate release" program; most states have similar laws. Cosby's lawyers have repeatedly cited his advanced age and blindness as reasons for clemency in court and in the press. Before his first trial in 2017, Cosby revealed he was totally blind; at his sentencing hearing, his defense lawyer told O'Neill,"There is no reasonable prospect that an 81-year-old blind man is likely to reoffend." But last year, a nearly blind 77-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years for marijuana charges. That man had prior convictions, though, which shows how many factors go into these decisions.

Another key factor in Cosby's sentencing is the high-profile nature of the trial. National outrage over the six-month sentence for Brock Turner, the Stanford University swimmer convicted of assaulting a woman in 2015, led to the historic recall of Judge Aaron Persky. Alaska Judge Michael Corey is facing similar pressure after approving a plea deal with no prison time for a man who allegedly kidnapped and assaulted a woman in 2017—and a comment from the district attorney, who called the deal the defendant's "one pass," has only intensified the backlash. Cosby is also the first celebrity to face prison time in #MeToo's wake. In short, the whole world was watching O'Neill.

Cosby will serve his sentence in a Pennsylvania state prison and will not be granted bail pending appeals. Pennsylvania does have compassionate release, but it's only meant for those close to death. Still, if Cosby becomes terminally ill, he can apply for release to a hospice provider or care facility (though the process can be grueling). After three years, he'll be eligible for parole. Ultimately, the parole board's decisions will determine if his sentence is in line with other convictions or not—if he's released in 2021, Cosby will have served far less time than his fellow felons.

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