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What if the Longest Someone Could Go to Prison in America Was 20 Years?

January 08, 2016
In an interview with Mic, The Sentencing Project's Executive Director Marc Mauer discusses his proposal for a 20-year maximum on prison sentences.

The current issue of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas showcases 16 targeted policy proposals for the next presidential administration, tackling issues from mass incarceration to climate change. In his recent contribution to the “16 for ‘16” symposium, The Sentencing Project’s Executive Director Marc Mauer makes the case for a 20-year maximum for prison sentences.

In an interview with Mic, Mauer discusses his provocative idea, and how he came to the conclusion that such a mild sentencing cap (which would, in turn, apply downward pressure to less serious offenses) could realistically ensure public safety. The answer entails grappling with much deeper questions about the very purpose of punishment, and whether the criminal justice system in the U.S. should be geared toward focusing primarily on rehabilitation rather than satisfying a cultural urge to punish and isolate people who have violated the law.

Mic: Nationally, one of every nine people in prison is serving a life sentence. That sounds like overkill. But I imagine 20 years will still strike even a number of people quite optimistic about the ability of humans to reform as rather short in the case of severe crimes. Can you explain how you came to the idea for capping the maximum at 20 specifically?

Marc Mauer: Well, I think the actual number is subject to some debate — there are people who would even make the argument for making it 10 years. Generally speaking, the risk of involvement of crime goes down significantly even after 10 years. But for very serious crimes, there’s certainly some public sentiment for longer sentences because of how we’ve beencultured in recent decades.

So 20 years seems like a reasonable starting point for consideration. As I point out in my piece, you can see this in some other nations — in Norway, the maximum sentence is 21 years. There are models of other nations that look at this differently, where that seems to be a reasonable figure and has been developed over many years.

Read the full interview on Mic.

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