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Lengthy Prison Terms Not ‘Significant Deterrent’ to Crime: Report

Prison sentences should be reviewed and considered for resentencing within 10 years, according to the Sentencing Project.

Research shows criminal careers typically end within a decade, and that recidivism rates fall measurably after about a decade of imprisonment, wrote Senior Research Analysts Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Ashley Nellis in a briefing paper released Thursday.

The paper analyzed year-end prison population data from the National Corrections Reporting Program, prison data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and public data from agencies across the country.

“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,” Ghandnoosh and Nellis write.

“Evidence shows lengthy prison terms do not have a significant deterrent effect on crime and divert resources from more effective investments in public safety.”

The report’s authors argue that studies conducted using numerous research methodologies have demonstrated that long prison sentences imprison individuals who are no longer a threat to public safety.

Over 260,000 people in American prisons already served at least 10 years of their sentences in prison as of 2019, 19 percent of the total prison population.

Nearly three times as many were serving sentences of 10 years or more, looking forward to more time in prison at a point where research says they may no longer be a threat to public safety.

These numbers  have significantly increased since 2000, when just 10 percent of the prison population had served at least 10 years behind bars, the paper says..

People who had served at least 10 years in federal prison had a reoffending rate that was 29 percent lower than those in a similar situation who received shorter sentences, according to the United States Sentencing Commission.

Additionally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that those who had served more than six years in prison were 25 percent less likely to reoffend than those who had only served one year when looking at recidivism rates for those released from state prisons on convictions for violent crimes.

Outside of a carceral environment, numerous studies have tracked groups during the course of their “criminal careers.” Most criminals stop committing crimes between four and twelve years after they start, according to this research.

Based on this evidence, some of the most respected legal organizations and authorities advise reevaluating prison sentences after 10 to 15 years.

The American Bar Association has already urged lawmakers to give judges the authority to “second-look” criminal sentences after ten years.

Among the Sentencing Projects findings were:

    • In California, 29 percent 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 percent 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 percent of the total prison population. This is an increase from 587,000 people in 2000—which represented 44 percent of the prison population in that year.
    • Racial disparities in the criminal justice system increase when you look at the population of people serving the longest terms in prison. In 2019, Black Americans represented 14 percent of the total U.S. population, 33 percent of the total prison population, and 46 percent of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years.
    • 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.

The Sentencing Project argues that, because criminological evidence demonstrates that extended jail sentences do not significantly reduce crime and divert funds away from more productive expenditures in public safety and long sentences are known to increase many of the negative effects of incarceration, lawmakers need to consider how they can change the current system.

All jurisdictions should create an automatic judicial sentence-review process within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, with a rebuttable presumption of resentencing (not necessarily release),” Ghandnoosh and Nellis write.

“Ultimately, The Sentencing Project, in coalition with other organizations, recommends limiting maximum prison terms to 20 years, except in rare cases.”

The full report, “How Many People Are Spending Over a Decade in Prison?” can be downloaded here.

Audrey Nielsen is a contributing writer to The Crime Report.

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