Two heavyweights in the fight for prison reform have proposed a controversial way to slash the number of people behind bars in the US: give violent offenders shorter sentences.
In an op-ed for The New York Times, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, and David Cole, a professor of law and public policy at Georgetown University, write that many liberals and conservatives alike acknowledge the US criminal justice system needs reform. But for the debate to move beyond “symbolic sound bites,” they write, tangible changes need to happen.
Among their ideas, Mauer and Cole would cut sentences for violent crimes in half. They write:
Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-year and a 30-year sentence.
As of 2014, about 2.4 million people in the US, or .7% of the population, were in prison. That’s the most of any country in the world.
The US not only locks more people up, but it also imposes sentences longer than other countries. One of every nine US prisoners is serving a life sentence, according to Mauer and Cole. In many states, parole has also become less available.
These offenders often “age out” of crime, as the authors put it. Someone who commits an armed robbery at 25 generally poses less of a threat by 35 of 40. Nearly 250,000 inmates, however, are over the age of 50, according to them.
While many people have criticised the often heavy-handed punishments handed down for minor, nonviolent offenses — such as those resulting from “three strikes” legislation — only a brave few would suggest lowering sentences for violent criminals.
“The facts that no other Western European nation even comes close to our incarceration rates, and that all have lower homicide rates, show that there are better ways to address crime,” Mauer and Cole conclude.
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