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Reduced sentence length means dramatic drop in prison population

On behalf of Peter Brill

In his recent testimony before the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, said two things are needed to reduce the unprecedented prison population in the United States: reduction in the number of people imprisoned and the length of sentences.

Mauer argued that reducing the upper limit of federal sentencing to a maximum of 20 years except when exceptional circumstances require a longer sentence would result in a substantial drop in the number of people incarcerated, the elimination of costs associated with lengthy prison sentences, a “more appropriate balance of public safety investments” and a reduction in “excessive sentence[s] even at lower levels of offense severity.”

Prison system growth attributable to lengthy sentences

The federal prison system is operating at 40 percent over capacity. Today roughly 220,000 people are incarcerated in the federal prison system, compared to 22,000 in 1980. This growth has been driven by both the number of people sentenced – many for drug-related offenses – and the length of their sentences. In fact, from 1998 to 2010, more than 50 percent of prison population growth was attributable to sentence length.

U.S. sentencing policy out of step with other modern democracies

The U.S. sentencing policy is more punitive compared to other modern democracies. One in every nine people is serving a life sentence, many of which are serving life with no chance of parole. Approximately 45 federal statutes have as the mandatory minimum sentence imprisonment for life, and it is estimated that 42 percent of people who received a life sentence did so for a crime for which life was the minimum penalty allowed.

U.S. sentencing policy exerts “upward pressure”

The problem with life sentences is that they inflate the entire sentencing system. Because offenses are proportional, the sentence relates to severity of the crime. This means an increase in the number and types of crimes for which a life sentence is mandated will necessarily cause the sentences for lesser offenses to be pushed higher.

“Diminishing returns” of sentence length

Sentences of more than 20 years are “largely counterproductive and are extremely costly.” First, most offenders “age out” of crime. Studies show that crime peaks in the mid-to-late teenage years and drops sharply as they reach their 30s and 40s. Thus, with each year it becomes less-likely that incarceration is necessary or helpful. Second, it is a myth that a long prison sentence is good for public safety. In fact, a person released from a life sentence is less than one-third as likely to reoffend within three years than offenders released from less-lengthy sentences. Third, because Medicaid and Medicare may not be used to treat prisoners, the costs of housing and caring for an aging prison population is largely the responsibility of the correctional facility. Finally, long sentences divert funds and resources from other public safety projects.

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