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State Prison Sentences in the U.S. Are Getting Longer—But Not Necessarily Keeping Us Safer

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

Over the last few decades, the share of incarcerated people in U.S. state prisons serving long sentences has increased significantly—and it’s not necessarily keeping us safer, according to a new analysis by a nonpartisan criminal justice group.

A Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) task force found in a report published Tuesday that almost two-thirds (63%) of state prisoners were serving sentences of 10 years or more; that’s up from 46% in 2005. The bulk of the incarcerated population in the U.S.—more than 80%—reside in state prisons.

The findings reflect that upticks in violent crime in urban cities in 2016 and 2020 have led policymakers to impose stringent policies with little scrutiny about their effect on public safety. Despite the potent politics around campaigning on “tough on crime” positions, members of the CCJ task force argue that long sentences don’t equate to safer communities.

“When violent crime increases in neighborhoods, sometimes lawmakers instinctively respond with demands for stiffer sentencing or increased punishment but those actions are often taken without regard to the effectiveness of the penalties imposed,” says Kathryn Bocanegra, an assistant professor at Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois Chicago and member of the task force. “Just because we increase long term prison sentences, the evidence does not bear out, that that makes our community safer.” The report argues that a better use of government money would be to divert it towards grassroots evidence-based violence prevention programs that address the root causes of crime.

The task force behind the report includes a diverse array of perspectives, relying on expertise from law enforcement officials and former prosecutors as well as victims and survivors of serious crime and people who were incarcerated. Among its members are former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former Congressman Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina.

The effects of longer sentences have been felt harder by Black prisoners; the gap between the number of Black prisoners facing longer sentences compared to their white counterparts widened from 0.5% to 4% from 2005 to 2019. The report calls for Congress and state legislatures to require data analysis about racial disparities in sentencing. “It raises questions that people have about the legitimacy of our criminal justice system. It’s important that people trust the fairness of our system,” says John Maki, director of the Task Force on Long Sentences at CCJ.

While murder defendants were the most likely to receive a long sentence of 10 years or more, those who had committed drug offenses made up the largest share (20%) of those serving long prison sentences of 10 years or more, according to the report.

Experts say that long sentencing became more common in the U.S. in part as a response to a spike in violent crime from the 1970s through the early 1990s, and those sentencing trends have continued today. “There’s very little public safety value that comes from the tail end of long sentences,” says Maki, and there is a “very diminished to no impact in terms of its ability to reduce recidivism.”

Sam Lewis, a member of the task force and executive director of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, an L.A. based organization that provides resources and programming for formerly and currently incarcerated people focused on rehabilitation and reintegration into society, spent 24 years in prison before being released in January 2012. By the time he was 16, he had been shot twice. At 18, he was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he says he committed in connection with a gang he was involved with at the time. Long sentences can be particularly demoralizing, Lewis argues, even for prisoners who are trying their best to grow—and particularly in prisons with inadequate rehabilitative programming. “Now I’m at year nine and you tell me I still have another 15 years to serve, then I begin to ask myself: what more can I do? And I began to lose hope,” Lewis says. “What happens is you have a person that has given up on that transformation.”

One thing that can make communities safer is investing in resources to ensure victims of serious crime receive support, the drafters of the report argue. Lewis is just one example of how being a victim of violence can sometimes lead traumatized individuals into engaging in violence later in their lives. “When violence occurs, we need to attend to those who have been traumatized,” says Bocanegra. “If there is an effective trauma response to violent crime incidents, we will see fewer of them and disrupt cycles of violence.”

The task force issued more than a dozen recommendations to address sentencing disparities and long sentences. In addition to divesting funding for long sentences towards violence prevention programs, it calls for increased access to services for victims and survivors of violent crimes—and in particular supporting organizations with a record of engaging young Black men who live in low-income urban communities. “They are the most at risk of being victims of serious violent crime but the least likely to access victim and survivor services,” the report notes. It also urges that victims’ rights be better protected; sometimes victims are required to cooperate with law enforcement in order to receive money that Congress set aside for them.

To minimize instances of repeat offenses, the report calls for investments towards addressing behavioral health needs of those serving long sentences. “Our prisons should do everything we can to encourage and reward rehabilitation,” Lewis says. “It gives hope and it changes how a person sees the world.”

Correction, March 21

The original version of this story stated that the average length of time served by those with long sentences grew from 9.7 years in 2005 to 15.5 years in 2019. This has been deleted because researchers removed it from the report over questions about the data’s reliability. The story has also been updated to clarify that the report is from a CCJ task force.

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Write to Sanya Mansoor at sanya.mansoor@time.com