That, in a way, seems to be what Bernie Ebbers will argue at his sentencing hearing. Ebbers is 63, and apparently not in good health, so a lengthy sentence may be the equivalent of a life sentence. Indeed, prosecutors are openly asking for such:
Federal prosecutors want former WorldCom boss Bernard Ebbers to go to prison for the rest of his life, urging a judge to brush off his pleas for leniency.
To be fair, Ebbers raises other grounds for leniency:
He has asked the judge for a sentence "substantially below" life in prison, citing his poor health and a history of charitable works. More than 100 people, mostly family and friends, have also written to Jones on his behalf.
Still, I'm interested in the implicit argument that he should have a chance to get out of prison alive, so that a sentence that might be appropriate for a younger person (say, 20 years) would be inappropriate for him. I have to confess that my initial reaction is that this would be an unfair rule. After all, Ebbers has had all this time not in prison, which the younger person would not. So why should Ebbers benefit from the fact that he committed his crime later in life?
(And I might add, there is no guarantee that a 40 year old would survive a 20 year sentence. Prison is probably a high stress lifestyle.)
On the other hand, I suppose there is something in the notion of hope -- a prisoner who is not sentenced to an actual life sentence should perhaps have some reasonable hope of walking out of prison a free person one day. That might provide some incentive for good behavior, etc.
All I am questioning, therefore, is the implicit argument that compassion for the elderly should lead to their receiving lighter sentences for identical crimes than younger criminals. If we want to have compassionate sentences in general, that's fine. But just as one can make the case that a 63 year old defendant should get a break because he's old, one could argue that a 23 year defendant should get a break because he's young and can still learn from his mistake and contribute many years of productive work to society.