A yearlong independent study challenges U.S. lawmakers and state agencies to consider the effectiveness of long-term prison sentences.
The Council on Criminal Justice, a nonpartisan think tank made up of a diverse panel of law enforcement officials, advocacy groups, victims, former prosecutors and former prisoners, convened the task force that conducted the study.
The independent task force, co-chaired by former South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy and former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, defined a long sentence as one of 10 years or more. In 2020, 63% of people incarcerated in state prisons met that criterion, compared to 46% in 2005, reported USA Today.
“The long sentences we have today were created … when people wanted simple solutions … It’s a good moment now to reflect on what we’ve learned about victimization, what we’ve learned about the cost of incarceration and how people [age out of crime],” said John Maki, director of the task force.
The task force faces the question of what incarcerated people need in order to re-acclimate into society and to ensure public safety upon release, according to the report.
Offenders often require additional support to prevent recidivism. Offering behavioral health services to prisoners can help them heal from unresolved trauma.
The task force’s focus remains on ensuring individual treatment of prisoners’ cases. Any sentence enhancement should not be based on prior criminal history, and instead based on a risk assessment of reoffending, said the report.
The report also recommended reevaluating long-term sentences involving drugs, primarily when the quantity of drugs involved in the crime extended the offender’s sentence.
The think tank challenged state and federal authorities to address the barriers that victims and survivors face. It also stressed the need to create more access to mental health services for all parties affected.
Maintaining public safety is an increasing concern, especially as homicide rates continue to rise. The question remains whether long sentences are the best way to use public safety dollars.
As long sentences get reduced, funds that would have been used by prisons can go instead to community organizations and strategies to support victims and further prevent violence, the story said.
Amy Fettig, task force member and director of The Sentencing Project, continues to advocate for the elimination of mandatory sentence minimums.
“There are so many people today who have served long sentences, who have been released, who become agents of public safety … It’s important to not lose sight of that,” Maki said.