Faced with America’s world-leading incarceration rate, and after decades of draconian sentences, we must ask the question: Do our punishments fit their crimes? Far too often, the answer is a resounding no. Courts across the country continue to condemn defendants to years, decades, or even life in prison for relatively minor crimes, handing down sentences that serve no legitimate public safety purpose. These sentences are ineffective deterrents and can effectively throw away people’s chances at rehabilitation and reintegration into society. With convictions disproportionately affecting poor people and people of color, these sentences are also helping to exacerbate unwarranted racial disparities in the criminal justice system and tear vulnerable communities apart.
The work of sentencing reformers, along with the unavoidable budget problems created by overcrowded prisons, are sowing the seeds of change with state and federal governments. Several states have already seen major savings, with no ill effect on public safety, by implementing a few small reforms to decrease prison populations. It is time for all corners of the country to recognize that long prison sentences are not necessary to keep our society safe and, in fact, conflict with our most cherished values and harm our well-being. We must instead turn our attention and resources to more humane, fair, and public health-oriented solutions.