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Long prison sentences are cruel and ineffective: here’s the proof

Experts call for end of mandatory minimums and overreliance on incarceration, shift toward evidence-backed, restorative sentences

The cell house janitor delivering the weekly issue of matches to prisoners of Iowa State Penitentiary maximum security prison in Fort Madison, Iowa, circa 1965.Three Lions/Getty Images

The United States incarcerates nearly 2 million people, far more than any other country in the world. But the problem of mass incarceration in this country is not just a function of the number of people in prison—or the much larger number of people who cycle in and out of jails every year. Our system also incarcerates people for far too long, doling out excessively long sentences.

As of 2019, 57 percent of the prison population was serving sentences of 10 or more years. And as of 2020, one in seven people in U.S. prisons was serving a life sentence — more than the country’s entire incarcerated population in 1970.

Vera’s report, A New Paradigm for Sentencing in the United States, shows how we arrived at these dismal statistics and charts a path forward. We explain why our system can, and must, shift away from its current overreliance on incarceration and toward community-based sentences.

Concepts that have been central to sentencing theory, policy, and practice to date — such as retribution, deterrence, and excessive incapacitation — have been backed by paltry evidence of success, demonstrating, instead, more evidence of harm. States and the federal government have leaned on these principles to justify as much prison time as possible. But doing so has not been effective in delivering accountability and building public safety. Instead, this system has caused harm that has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities.

From 1996 to 1997, I clerked for Federal Judge Jack Weinstein, who strongly, and publicly, opposed mandatory minimums and the then-rigid federal sentencing guidelines. But there was little he could do to deviate from those directives. I saw many people cycle through his courtroom. A large percentage of them were people who, out of desperation, had agreed to carry cocaine into the country in exchange for a couple hundred dollars and were arrested at JFK Airport.

Judge Weinstein didn’t sit at the bench. We would all sit around a table in the well of the courtroom — the judge, the Assistant United States Attorney, the convicted person, their family, their attorney, and me. He tried to apply a modicum of human decency to a process that is utterly dehumanizing. It was sometimes all he could do. In most cases, he had no option but to sentence them to mandatory minimums or make a “downward departure” from the guidelines, which would be subject to reversal if the prosecutors chose to appeal. As a general matter, those convicted would have to serve excessively and pointlessly long sentences.

Their lives and their families’ lives were devastated, and millions more continue to be today, as states and the federal government continue to use mandatory minimums, three-strikes laws, and other sentencing enhancements. And yet, evidence to support our retributive, punitive approach is limited. In fact, we know this approach doesn’t make our communities safer in the way proponents claim and the public assumes. A 2021 meta-analysis of 116 studies found, for example, that custodial sentences do not prevent reoffending — and can actually increase it.

That’s because incarceration destabilizes people’s lives. The brutality of U.S. prisons, the difficulties securing employment and housing with a conviction history, and the overall lack of financial security all negatively impact people — and their ability to succeed — after prison.

Our criminal legal apparatus defaults to putting most people convicted of crimes behind bars, but lengthy sentences do not deter crime. Instead, there are solutions that can deliver real public safety and justice, while repairing harm — ideals our current system fails to achieve.

For preventing crime, those solutions include community violence intervention programs, which have been shown to reduce homicides and shootings by building relationships with people at the center of gun violence in communities, as well as investing in schools, health care, and the other services, resources, and supports that communities need to thrive. For promoting accountability and repairing harm, survivors of crime have said they prefer more proactive measures — such as education or job programming, mental health treatment, drug treatment, or community service — rather than prison sentences.

Vera offers seven proposals to Congress and state legislatures that would dramatically reduce the number of people incarcerated in our prisons. These legislative actions include setting a maximum prison sentence of 20 years for adults and 15 years for young people, based on research showing people “age out” of crime; allowing people to earn one day off of their sentences for each day of positive behavior; and abolishing mandatory minimums.

But we can do more, keeping in mind that sentencing should privilege liberty over incarceration as much as possible, building on the Constitution’s protections of this right. Sentencing should deliver more public safety based on evidence as to what actually creates strong, healthy, and thriving communities. And it must repair harm to survivors of crime so that their needs — and not rhetoric about retribution — are centered in our solutions.

We hope that this report will catalyze deep reconsideration, challenge assumptions, and disrupt our system’s proclivity for long, harsh sentences that are ultimately ineffective. We call on legislators, prosecutors, and judges to help advance sentencing reform — and put an end to our codified system of excessive punishment.

Nicholas Turner is president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice.