Second Chances Are Better Than Long Sentences

The U.S. Sentencing Commission, which is largely dormant due to a lack of a quorum, published a study late last month on recidivism that is a blast from the past and straight from the failed “Tough on Crime” era playbook of the 1980s.

Its key finding was that “incarceration lengths of more than 120 months had a deterrent effect” on recidivism. 

Ignoring all of the sensible and impactful justice reforms of the past several years, while dismissing the steep price, both fiscally and to families due to long sentences, the Sentencing Commission’s study stands in stark contrast to studies by the National Academy of Science, Pew, the U.S. Department of Justice and Rand Corp., as well as neuroscience studies and re-entry programs to name just a few.  

For example, the NAS concluded in 2014 that, “there is little convincing evidence that mandatory minimum sentencing, truth-in-sentencing, or life without possibility of parole laws had significant crime reduction effects. But there is substantial evidence that they shifted sentencing power from judges to prosecutors; provoked widespread circumvention; exacerbated racial disparities in imprisonment; and made sentences much longer, prison populations much larger, and incarceration rates much higher.

“The policy initiatives that swept the nation were by and large ineffective at creating just, consistent, and transparent sentencing systems. The more targeted approaches — parole and presumptive sentencing guidelines, especially when incorporating prison capacity constraints — were effective.”

Likewise, the 2013 Rand and Justice Department study showed that skills and education programs improve chances for reducing recidivism. The study concluded that inmates who participated in education programs were almost 50 percent less likely to return to prison. 

The Sentencing Commission’s findings are simplistic and should be considered an outlier. The commission doesn’t appear to have analyzed the costs and benefits of alternatives to incarceration that could produce the same or better results at a much lower cost to taxpayers and communities. Indeed, the deterrent impact seems to be only for the individual who is incarcerated.

Communities across the country continue to become safer and more just because the majority of states have chosen a “Smart on Crime, Soft on Taxpayers” approach to criminal justice reform. This is an approach based on data and science — not political posturing and race-baiting — that focuses on rehabilitation, restoration, and, redemption.  As a result, crime rates and incarceration rates have fallen at the same time in states that have embraced the reforms the most, resulting in less crime and more prosperity. 

Here’s one example: According to the Sentencing Project, New York and New Jersey led the nation by reducing their prison populations by 26 percent between 1999 and 2012, while the nationwide state prison population increased by 10 percent. During these periods of decarceration, violent crime rates fell at a greater rate in these states than they did nationwide. Between 1999 and 2012, New York and New Jersey’s violent crime rate fell by 31 percent and 30 percent, respectively, while the national rate decreased by 26 percent. 

Longer sentences make nobody safer, especially now. The COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged the United States, particularly its correctional facilities, is yet another wake-up call to change our ways, especially for people who are immunocompromised or elderly and do not pose a threat to the general population. Nobody is safer when a longer sentence, especially one imposed as a mandatory minimum, means endangering the health and lives of other incarcerated individuals, correctional staff, and their families during a pandemic that has already claimed more American lives than the Vietnam War. 

As of this writing, over 70 percent of federal inmates have tested positive for the virus, which public health officials have indicated is likely to remain a threat for the foreseeable future, and certainly until the development and implementation of effective immunization. 

Especially at this time of crisis, the implementation of more policies and programs that save taxpayers money and improve public safety while empowering people in prison to prepare themselves for success upon release has never been more important. 

Mark Holden is a member of the Board of Directors of Americans for Prosperity.

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