Over 260,000 people in U.S. prisons had been incarcerated for at least 10 years as of 2019, comprising 19 percent 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 2000, when mass incarceration was already well under way, reports the Sentencing Project. Based on evidence that criminal careers typically end within about about 10 years and recidivism rates fall sharply after about a decade of imprisonment, the organization called for a second look at sentences within 10 years of imprisonment.
Because racial disparities are even starker among those serving long terms than among those serving shorter ones, focusing reforms on sentences of 10 years or more can accelerate racial justice, the Sentencing Project says. The dozen 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, D.C. As of 2019, Blacks represented 14 percent of the U.S. population, 33 percent of the prison population, and 46 percent of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years. The group contends that if those with lengthy sentences serve their full terms, they are likely to remain in prison after they 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, says the organization. It calls for a series of reforms, including limiting most prison terms to 20 years, repealing mandatory minimum sentences and scaling back sentencing guidelines, applying reforms retroactively.