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Time to Find the Key

by Jayson Hawkins

“Lock’em up and throw away the key” has long been the rallying cry of the tough-on-crime crowd. While this approach may have an intuitive appeal to a public frightened by stories about crime in the media, a series of recent studies has challenged the rationale of long sentences by questioning the connection between lengthy prison terms, recidivism, and public safety.

Senior Research Analysts Nazgol Ghandnoosh and Ashley Nellis at the Sentencing Project released a paper in September 2022 compiling findings from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Corrections Reporting Program, and other public agencies across the country. The paper concluded from this data that long prison sentences are keeping people locked up who are no longer a threat to public safety. This conclusion is even more troubling because the paper also found that prisoners are serving longer sentences than ever.

More than 260,000 prisoners in the U.S. have served at least 10 years behind bars as of 2019, representing 19% of the total prison population. This represents a dramatic increase from 2000 when just 10% had served at least 10 years.

These numbers have an impact on public safety. The U.S. Sentencing Commission found that people who had served at least 10 years in federal prison reoffend at a rate that is 29% lower than those who serve less. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found similar data for state prisoners. Those who served at least six years in a state prison were 25% less likely to return to prison than those who served only one year.

These figures mirror previous findings that showed most criminals stop committing crimes 4 to 12 years after they start. This has led the American Bar Association, the Sentencing Project, and other groups to recommend that judges have the ability to reevaluate sentences after 10 to 15 years.

Despite these recommendations and the data that drives them, more people are serving longer sentences in the U.S. than ever before. Approximately 770,000 American prisoners are serving a sentence of 10 years or more, a 12% increase in the faction of such prisoners since 2000. There are 12 jurisdictions in America where two-thirds of prisoners are serving a sentence of at least a decade. These numbers are even higher among Black Americans who represent only 14% of the total U.S. population but 33% of the prison population and 46% of those who have served 10 years or more.

These numbers present a direct challenge to the tough-on-crime mentality, and it is time for voters to demand legislators find the key to those prisons that they threw away decades ago.


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