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Panel Questions Effectiveness Of Long Prison Terms

A national task force issued 14 recommendations on ways to enhance judicial discretion in sentencing, promote accountability, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, better serve victims of crime, and increase public safety.

The proposals were made in a report, "How Long Is Long Enough?" by a panel of the think tank Council on Criminal Justice headed by former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Sally Yates and former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC).

The group disputed calls by some critics for longer prison sentences during a period of high violent crime rates.

The council said that 63% of state prisoners in 2020 were serving a sentence of 10 or more years, up from 46% in 2005, a shift due largely to a decline in people serving shorter terms.

Defining long sentences as prison terms of 10 years or more, the proposals include:

--Shifting savings from reductions in the use of long prison sentences to programs aimed at preventing violence and addressing the trauma it causes to individuals, families, and communities.

--Allowing judges to consider all relevant facts and circumstances when imposing long sentences and requiring that sentencing enhancements based on criminal history be driven by individualized assessments of risk and other factors.

--Providing selective “second look” sentence review opportunities and expanding access to sentence-reduction credits.

--Focusing penalties in drug cases on a person’s role in a trafficking organization, rather than the quantities of drugs involved.

--Reducing recidivism by providing behavioral health services and other rehabilitative opportunities in prison.

--Strengthening services for all crime victims and survivors by enforcing victims’ rights, removing barriers to services, and creating restorative justice opportunities.

Yates and Gowdy said, “Some may wonder, why would we even discuss the nation’s use of long prison sentences now, amid a rise in homicide rates and legitimate public concern about public safety? Because this is exactly the time to examine what will actually make our communities safer and our system more just."

“When crime rates increase, so do calls for stiffer sentencing, often without regard to the effectiveness or fairness of those sentences. Criminal justice policy should be based on facts and evidence, not rhetoric and emotion, and we should be laser-focused on strategies that make the most effective use of our limited resources.”

The report was issued after a year-long analysis by the task force, which includes 16 members representing a

broad range of experience and perspectives, including crime victims and survivors, former prisoners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement, courts, and corrections officials.

The panel examined the effects of long sentences on the criminal justice system and the populations it serves.

Between 2005 and 2020, the gap between Black and white people receiving long terms widened, from half a

percentage point to 4 percentage points. Murder defendants were the most likely to receive a long sentence. Drug offenses accounted for the largest share (20%) of those admitted to prison to serve 10 or more years.

“Our nation’s reliance on long sentences as a response to violence requires us to wrestle with highly challenging questions about the relationship between crime, punishment, and public safety,” said Task Force Director John Maki. “Through their painstaking deliberations, our members rose to the challenge and produced a set of recommendations that recognize our need to advance public safety while respecting the humanity of those most affected by long prison terms.”

Task force researchers conducted calculations to show that the U.S. remains a global outlier in its use of long prison sentences, even after accounting for the much higher homicide rate in the U.S., compared to Europe, and for actual prison time served (vs. sentence length).


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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