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Long U.S. Prison Terms Resemble Those In Developing Countries

As the use of prison sentences of 10 years or more has increased globally, the U.S. is an outlier among nations in the extent to which it imposes them, says a task force of the Council on Criminal Justice.

Long sentences are imposed more frequently and are longer on average in the U.S. compared with most other countries, found an analysis by Prof. Lila Kazemian of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The average long sentence in the U.S. is more closely aligned with criminal justice practices in Mexico, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries than with those of peer nations in Europe.

Differences in the actual amount of time people serve are smaller because of owing to requirements in some countries that people serve greater portions of their court-imposed sentences before release.

The higher rate of homicide in the U.S. compared with European countries partially explains its more frequent use of long sentences.

The report says that “while Georgia and Alabama were ranked first and second for the percent of the prison population sentenced to 10 or more years, these states dropped down to the 36th and 55th ranks, respectively, with the adjustment for their higher homicide rates.

Luxembourg, Italy, Spain, Croatia, and Utah are the top five users of long sentences adjusted for homicide rates. Norway, ranked among the lowest nations for incarceration rate (73rd out of 75 jurisdictions compared) and percentage of people serving long prison terms (70th out of 75), jumps up to 16th considering its low homicide rate.

“This is the most authoritative and comprehensive report to date on how long sentences in the U.S. compare with those in other nations,” said John Maki, director of the council's Task Force on Long Sentences. “Its findings underscore the uniquely severe features of U.S. sentencing, which has more in common with developing nations than other affluent countries.”

Because criminal justice policies and incarceration rates vary dramatically across U.S. states, Kazemian compared sentencing trends in individual states with other nations.

The report found that many European countries have increased their use of long sentences in recent

decades. In Germany, for instance, the proportion of the long-term prisoner population sentenced to life imprisonment increased from 21.4 percent in 1995 to 30.2 percent in 2012.

Comparisons of the average sentence length for homicide show that the U.S. has the

longest sentences among nations at 40.6 years, compared to 34.2 years for Mexico

(ranked second) and 6.1 for France.

The Task Force on Long Sentences is examining how prison sentences of 10 years or more

affect incarcerated people and their families; victims and survivors of crime; correctional

staff; communities; and public safety. It is coCo-chaired by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General

Sally Yates and former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).

Support for the task force comes from Arnold Ventures, the Ford Foundation, Southern

Company Foundation, and Stand Together Trust, as well as #StartSmall, the John D. and

Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and other CCJ contributors.


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