It’s time to acknowledge that long prison terms do not prevent violence
In the Nov. 3 election, people in California, Oklahoma, Kentucky and several U.S. cities continued to grapple with the criminal justice system’s shortcomings, voting to make immediate changes. Reform-minded sheriffs and prosecutors were voted in as the electorate demanded a new vision for public safety, one that offers increased accountability and transparency for law enforcement. Criminal justice reform was on the ballot in 2020 and the public responded enthusiastically.
However, as we confront a pandemic unprecedented in our time, and a reckoning on racial equity, we urgently need more ambitious reform. Prisons and jails, along with nursing homes and meat-packing plants, contain some of the largest COVID-19 clusters; social distancing is nearly impossible and hand sanitizer is rare, if not prohibited. The cost of our excessive reliance on incarceration, particularly on people of color, has never been clearer.
While many are working to reshape systems to produce more safety and justice, recent justice reforms primarily focused on nonviolent, low-level offenses; that’s where most lawmakers are comfortable. People serving long sentences for serious and violent crimes — nearly 700,000 of the 2.3 million people in prisons and jails — have too often been left out of the conversation. Unless we change our reactions to the conditions that lead people to violence in the first place, the U.S. will remain the world’s leader in incarceration.
Lengthy prison terms emanating from the “tough-on-crime” era — including “three strikes,” mandatory minimums that require people serve a prescribed portion of their sentences, and the end of discretionary parole in many jurisdictions — are driving imprisonment numbers. As a result, one in seven people in prison are serving a life sentence or its virtual equivalent.
These policies have resulted in a graying of our prisons. The percentage of people in state prison who are 55 and over tripled between 2000 and 2016, when, for the first time, older adults accounted for a larger share of the incarcerated population than people ages 18 to 24. Prisons now run units that look like nursing homes, and the expense of caring for this frail population has costs soaring. Experts agree there is little evidence that increasing a sentence from, say, 10 years to 15 years does anything to deter crime, and confining older people does little for public safety. Research shows crime is mostly committed by the young, with recidivism rates dropping precipitously as people age.
The fiscal consequences of our incarceration boom are stark; one analysis estimates the tab at $182 billion annually. The human costs are more insidious. Millions of Americans face daunting barriers to housing, employment and education, making post-prison life part of their punishment. Such consequences are particularly damaging for communities of color.
Moving forward we must recognize that people change, and that a rational justice system must include mechanisms allowing individual evaluations of long sentences and the potential for earlier release. The Second Look Act of 2019 is a promising model. It would allow people who have served at least 10 years to petition for a sentence review and create a rebuttable presumption of release for those over age 50.
Second, we need to use the tools at hand more broadly. We need prosecutors to create sentence review teams to look for sentences that seem disproportionate to the severity of the offense, or are much longer than the term a person would receive today. And we need to use compassionate release, or geriatric parole, to address the bulging population of older people behind bars, a population highly vulnerable to coronavirus infection.
Third, it’s time to confront the fact that long prison terms are not preventing violence, and that our one-dimensional approach to punishment is an inadequate response to victims’ needs for healing and restitution. We must reimagine how we respond to violence. Producing true public safety requires better prevention by expanding economic development, affordable housing, early childhood education and treatment for people who have experienced the trauma of violence — all of which have been linked to future criminal behavior. We must also implement effective restorative justice approaches — they work better for crime survivors as well as those who have caused harm.
If we are serious about addressing the harm our over-reliance on incarceration causes, it’s time to move beyond incremental reform and address head-on the costly and counterproductive long prison terms of our highly retributive past. It’s the only way we’ll make real progress toward preventing and repairing violence when it occurs, and toward a more just and equitable legal system.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute and former interim director of Washington, D.C.’s, Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services.
Ryan King is the director of research and policy at the Justice Policy Institute.
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