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Blame Mass Incarceration on Sentencing Policies, not Mass Crime

A pair of hands in handcuffs
A pair of hands in handcuffs
Alex Stamm,
ACLU Center for Justice
Inimai Chettiar,
Brennan Center's Justice Program
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June 6, 2012

Any competent explanation of why our prison population has grown by 700 percent since the early ‘70s will involve a number of factors, including changes in demographics and in the way prosecutors charge defendants. But new research confirms what sentencing reform advocates have been saying for years: we have so many more prisoners because we’re locking people up for longer than ever before.

A report released today by the Pew Center on the States found that the average length of prison sentences has increased by 36 percent since 1990. In Florida, the average prison stay more than doubled. Normally, falling crime and arrest rates would cause prison populations to fall as well; however, because prisoners are now staying longer, our prison population has continued to rise.

Sentence lengths have increased by a combination of front- and back-end changes. On the front end, sentences are longer: the use of mandatory minimums, repeat offender enhancements such as three strikes laws, and life sentences has risen dramatically. On the back end, many states either abolished parole or enacted “truth-in-sentencing” laws, which prevent parole boards from releasing low-risk prisoners before they’ve served 85 percent of their (increasingly long) sentences.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the Pew report was their conclusion that, if done properly, we can reduce sentence lengths without compromising public safety. Their analysis of prisoners in Maryland, Florida and Michigan showed that up to 24 percent of nonviolent prisoners “could have been safely released after serving between three months and two years less time behind bars.” Releasing only these nearly-no-risk prisoners alone would reduce Michigan’s prison population by six percent, saving the state $92 million.

In addition to making our prison population larger, our sentencing policy choices have also made it much older. Not only are prisoners serving longer sentences, but the number of prisoners serving very long sentences – 20 years or more – has risen as well; many of today’s elderly prisoners were young men and women when they were sentenced.

In a way, this is good news for legislators. We wrote earlier about a Pew public opinion survey which found that most Americans want smart reforms that will reduce our prison population. Now it’s clear that reducing sentence lengths might be the most important step they could take.

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