To kick off 2016, Democracy Journal asked contributors for one targeted and straightforward idea that the next presidential administration should pursue in a symposium called “16 for ’16.” The Sentencing Project’s Executive Director Marc Mauer’s contribution proposes a 20-year maximum on federal sentences, barring exceptional circumstances.
Mauer explains that if our public policy responses to mass incarceration focus primarily on drug policy reform, “we will be sorely disappointed in the results”:
Of the 2.2 million people behind bars in America today, nearly half a million are incarcerated for a nonviolent drug offense. So even if we were to release that entire group, we would still have a rate of incarceration far higher than that of any comparable nation.
The heart of the problem, as documented in a major report released by the National Research Council in 2014, is that the tripling of the prison population since 1980 was produced by changes in policy, not crime rates. Half of the prison expansion resulted from sending more people to prison due to the increased adoption of mandatory sentencing policies and prosecutorial charging decisions, while half resulted from longer prison terms. The latter trend is increasingly the major barrier to substantial reductions in incarceration.
Today, one in every nine people in prison is serving a life sentence, with about a third of those individuals serving life without parole. In addition to the 160,000 individuals serving official life sentences, an undetermined number of people are serving virtual life sentences, “for example, a 40-year prison term imposed on a 35-year-old offender essentially equates to life imprisonment.”
The excessively lengthy incarceration of offenders—yes, even for violent crimes—is counterproductive, costly, and inhumane. To remedy this problem, Congress and state legislative bodies should establish an upper limit of 20 years in prison as a maximum penalty, except in unusual cases such as a serial rapist who has not been amenable to treatment in prison or a mass murderer. The rationale for such a policy shift is grounded in both humanitarian and public-safety concerns. Life sentences ruin families and tear apart communities; they deprive the person of the chance to turn his or her life around. Moreover, it has long been known that individuals “age out” of crime, and that this occurs at a surprisingly young age. As is true of all adults, offenders mature in prison as they age and develop a longer-term vision for their lives. Research by leading criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Kiminori Nakamura demonstrates that an 18-year-old arrested for robbery is no more likely to be arrested for this crime by the age of 26 than anyone in the general population. Thus, each successive year of incarceration after this decline sets in produces diminishing returns for public safety.
Read the full commentary in Democracy Journal.