June 18, 2019

Should America Cap Prison Sentences?

“America puts more people in jail and prison than any other country in the world. Although the country has managed to slightly reduce its prison population in recent years, mass incarceration remains a fact of the US criminal justice system.

It’s time for a radical idea that could really begin to reverse mass incarceration: capping all prison sentences at no more than 20 years. It may sound like an extreme, even dangerous, proposal, but there’s good reason to believe it would help reduce the prison population without making America any less safe.

In the 1980s and ’90s, American officials by and large believed the country was in the middle of a crime wave and an underincarceration crisis; they responded by increasing the length of prison sentences, enacting new mandatory minimums, and restricting the use of parole. Today, with crime rates lower, Americans more readily believe that the country has an overincarceration problem — one that disproportionately afflicts minority communities, as black and brown people are far more likely to be locked up than their white peers.

Given the impact that mass incarceration has had, there’s a strong case that the US should take steps to ensure that it doesn’t ever lock up so many people again.

Looking at the length of our prison sentences is one approach to reverse mass incarceration. Empirical research has consistently found that locking up people for very long periods of time does little to nothing to combat crime, and may actually lead to more crime as people spend more time in prison — missing big life opportunities for legitimate careers, and being incarcerated with others who have ties to the criminal world.”

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