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Policy Brief

How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?

In 2019, over half of the people in U.S. prisons – amounting to more than 770,000 people – were serving sentences of 10 years or longer – a huge jump from 2000.

Related to: Sentencing Reform

Two incarcerated people play chess behind prison bars

Overview

Over 260,000 people in U.S. prisons had already been incarcerated for at least 10 years in 2019, comprising 19% of the prison population. Nearly three times as many people—over 770,000— were serving sentences of 10 years or longer. These figures represent a dramatic growth from the year 2000, when mass incarceration was already well underway.

Based on criminological evidence that criminal careers typically end within approximately 10 years and recidivism rates fall measurably after about a decade of imprisonment, The Sentencing Project recommends taking a second look at sentences within 10 years of imprisonment. This research brief presents state-level analysis revealing a common growing trend of lengthy sentences, as well as significant geographic variation. The analysis also addresses racial disparities in long sentences. Because racial disparities are even starker here than among those serving shorter prison terms, focusing reform efforts on sentences of 10 years or more can accelerate racial justice. Finally, the brief presents the criminological and legal foundations for sentencing reform and offers recommendations for policymakers.

Key findings:

  • Nearly one in five people in U.S. prisons—over 260,000 people—had already served at least 10 years in 2019. This is an increase from 133,000 people in 2000—which represented 10% of the prison population in that year.
  • In California, 29% of imprisoned people had already served at least 10 years in 2019. In Washington, DC, the level was even higher in 2020, at 39%. By 2021 in Texas, 25% of imprisoned people had served at least a decade.
  • Over 770,000 people in U.S. prisons were serving sentences of 10 years or longer in 2019—56% of the total prison population. This is an increase from 587,000 people in 2000—which represented 44% of the prison population in that year.
  • The 12 U.S. jurisdictions where two-thirds or more of the prison population are serving sentences of at least a decade are: Georgia, West Virginia, Alabama, Montana, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Utah, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, and Washington, DC.
  • In 2019, Black Americans represented 14% of the total U.S. population, 33% of the total prison population, and 46% of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years.

The 12 U.S. jurisdictions in which two-thirds or more of the prison population are serving sentences of at least a decade are politically, geographically, and otherwise diverse, and include Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, and Washington, DC. If individuals with lengthy sentences serve their full terms (which extend beyond ten years and up to life imprisonment in some cases), they are likely to remain in prison after they are expected to pose a public safety risk. Evidence shows lengthy prison terms do not have a significant deterrent effect on crime and divert resources from more effective investments in public safety. Meanwhile, long sentences exacerbate many of the harms of imprisonment. Long-term imprisonment accelerates health problems for which people then receive substandard health care. People serving lengthier sentences are also at higher risk of marital dissolution and of losing contact with their children.

The United States is an outlier among western democracies in its heavy and growing reliance on lengthy prison terms. For example, in Germany for all but 0.01% of prison sentences, the maximum sentence length is 15 years, and life-without-parole and death sentences have been abolished. In contrast, U.S. policies respond to a far higher homicide rate by prioritizing punishment, rather than prevention. One in every seven people in U.S. prisons is serving a life sentence, and nearly half of U.S. states maintain the death penalty, with some continuing to carry out executions.

In recent years, a number of legislatures and prosecutors’ offices have begun reducing lengthy prison terms, such as by scaling back truth-in-sentencing requirements and implementing second-look reforms which allow for reconsideration of imposed sentences. These efforts reflect growing awareness that ending mass incarceration and tackling its racial disparities require scaling back long sentences. To further align criminal justice laws and policies with evidence on public safety, The Sentencing Project recommends:

Downsizing the inflated sentencing structure by:
  • Repealing mandatory minimum sentences and scaling back sentencing guidelines—and applying these reforms retroactively.
    Reducing overcharging and promoting lower plea offers by prosecutors.
  • Expediting minimum eligible release dates through good time credits, earned time credits, and parole—and increasing use of discretion to curb excessive prison terms.
  • Creating an automatic judicial sentence-review process within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment.
  • Limiting virtually all maximum prison terms to 20 years.
Tackling racial inequity in lengthy prison terms by:
  • Eliminating criminal legal sources of disparity such as pretrial detention, underfunded public defense, biased prosecutorial decision making, sentencing enhancements related to criminal histories, and biased parole decision making.
  • Develop racial impact statements forecasting the impact of both proposed and existing criminal laws on different populations.
  • Dramatically increasing investments in effective violence prevention and interruption interventions outside of the criminal legal system.

Click here to read the full report.

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About the Authors

  • Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D.

    Senior Research Analyst

    Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., conducts and synthesizes research on criminal justice policies. She has written about racial disparities in the justice system, public opinion about punishment, and the scope of reform efforts. 

    Read more about Nazgol
  • Ashley Nellis, Ph.D.

    Senior Research Analyst

    Ashley Nellis, Ph.D. has an academic and professional background in analyzing criminal justice policies and practices, racial disparities, juvenile justice systems, and long-term imprisonment. Her documentation of the prevalence of life imprisonment has served as a national resource for academics, advocates, policymakers, reporters, and incarcerated persons.

    Read more about Ashley

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