Are Long Prison Sentences Necessary?

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“For decades, while we made it increasingly difficult to obtain release, we have sent people to prison for longer and longer. We became reliant on extreme sentences, including mandatory minimums, “three-strike” laws, and so-called truth-in-sentencing requirements that limit opportunities for people to earn time off their sentences for good behavior. As a result, the United States laps the world in the number of people it incarcerates, with 2.2 million people behind bars, representing a 500 percent increase over the past four decades, with 1 in 9 people in prison serving a life sentence.”

Moreover, the authors argue that legislation is needed at the federal level and in every state to allow everyone after a certain period in prison the opportunity to seek sentence reductions. Sentence review legislation recognizes that as we have increased the length of prison sentences and limited the ability to obtain release, our prisons have become overwhelmed with people whose current conduct proves further incarceration is not in the public interest.

LONG PRISON SENTENCES DO NOT REDUCE CRIME.

“We increased sentence lengths and made it more difficult for people to be released because we were told it was needed for public safety,” said the authors. “But sending people to prison for long periods does not reduce crime.”

In fact, longer sentences, if anything, create crimeDavid Roodman, a senior adviser for Open Philanthropy, reviewed numerous studies on the impact of incarceration and concluded that “in the aftermath of a prison sentence, especially a long one, someone is made more likely to commit a crime than he would have been otherwise.”

Additionally, the authors say that not only are lengthy prison sentences ineffective at reducing crime, but they have devastated low-income and minority communities. As the Vera Institute aptly put it: “We have lost generations of young men and women, particularly young men of color, to long and brutal prison terms.” While black people are just 13-percent of the country’s population, they account for 40 percent of the people we incarcerate.

If the ineffectiveness of long prison terms or the impact on poor communities of color is not reason enough to revisit lengthy prison sentences, the financial drain of long prison terms is staggering. For example, U.S. prisons spend $16 billion per year on elder care alone. Billions of dollars are diverted to prisons to care for the elderly who would pose no real risk if released when that money could be going to our schools, hospitals, and communities.

Given this reality, the authors say, we need to pursue every option that would safely reduce our prison population. One proposal by the American Law Institute recommends reviewing all sentences after a person has served 15 years in prison. Another example is the bill Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced that would provide sentence review for anyone who has served more than 10 years in prison or who is over 50 years old. Notably, neither proposal is restricted by the type of offense, which is critical, because to combat mass incarceration, to echo the Prison Policy Initiative, reform has “to go further than the ‘low hanging fruit’ of nonviolent drug offenses.”

“Measures that promote sentence review would not automatically release anyone,” say the authors. “Instead, people would be given a chance to show a court that they are no longer a danger to public safety. A judge—after weighing all relevant circumstances, including hearing from any victims and their families—would then decide whether a person should be released.”

And numerous studies have shown that decreasing sentences does not increase crime. A recent Brennan Center for Justice report documented 34 states that reduced both their prison population and their crime rates, the Sentencing Project concluded that unduly long prison terms are counterproductive for public safety, and the Justice Policy Institute found little to no correlation between time spent in prison and recidivism rates.

My opinion? Some crimes need punishment. However, we have forgotten that our justice system is supposed to rehabilitate people, not just punish them. Our policies should reflect the ability of people to change over the course of years—or decades—of incarceration.