Policymakers should take steps to limit prison sentences in the United States—which incarcerates far more people than any other country and where the imprisoned population has soared 500% in recent decades—to 20 years for all crimes, a report published Wednesday by a leading criminal justice reform group argues.
“As the United States marks 50 years of mass incarceration, dramatic change is necessary to ensure another 50 do not follow,” asserts the Sentencing Project report, entitled Counting Down: Paths to a 20-Year Maximum Prison Sentence. “In no small part due to long sentences, the United States has one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, with nearly two million people in prisons and jails.”
The report continues:
The destabilizing force of mass incarceration deepens social and economic inequity—families lose not only a loved one, but income and childcare. By age 14, 1 in 14 children in the United States experiences a parent leaving for jail or prison. Individuals returning to the community face profound barriers to employment and housing. Meantime the communities most impacted by crime—poor communities and communities of color—disproportionately bear the burden of incarceration’s impacts. Long sentences affect young Black men disproportionately compared to every other race and age group. Twice as many Black children as white children have experienced parental incarceration. Mass incarceration entrenches cycles of harm, trauma, and disinvestment and consumes funds that might support investment in interventions that empower communities and create lasting safety.
“In the United States, over half of people in prison are serving a decade or longer and 1 in 7 incarcerated people are serving a life sentence,” the publication states. “To end mass incarceration, the United States must dramatically shorten sentences. Capping sentences for the most serious offenses at 20 years and shifting sentences for all other offenses proportionately downward, including by decriminalizing some acts, is a vital decarceration strategy to arrive at a system that values human dignity and prioritizes racial equity.”
The report notes that “in countries such as Germany and Norway, periods of incarceration rarely exceed 20 years, including for homicide offenses.”
While no country has yet implemented a 20-year incarceration limit, Russia caps women’s imprisonment at 20 years. In Norway, prison terms are limited to 21 years, with the possibility of extensions if the inmate is deemed to pose a continued danger to society. Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist who massacred 77 people and injured hundreds more in a pair of 2011 attacks, was sentenced to 21 years behind bars. His first parole bid was denied last year.
“In countries such as Germany and Norway, periods of incarceration rarely exceed 20 years, including for homicide offenses.”
Cape Verde, Paraguay, and Portugal limit imprisonment to 25 years. Countries including Brazil, Nicaragua, Congo, Uruguay, and Venezuela have 30-year maximum sentences.
The report also aims to dispel fears that releasing violent offenders would lead to a surge in recidivism.
“Research shows that, while very serious, committing homicide is typically an isolated offense,” the report states. “When individuals who commit homicides return to the community, their likelihood of committing another homicide is extremely low, typically 1-3%.”
Liz Komar, sentencing reform counsel at the Sentencing Project and co-author of the report, said in a statement that “to end mass incarceration, the U.S. must dramatically shorten sentences. Lawmakers can do this by capping sentences for the most serious offenses at 20 years and shifting sentences for all other offenses proportionately downward, including by decriminalizing some acts.”
Sentencing Project co-director of research Ashley Nellis, who also authored the new report, said that “in large part due to long prison sentences, we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.”
“The destabilizing force of mass incarceration deepens social and economic inequity, while entrenching cycles of harm, trauma, and disinvestment,” Nellis added. “Mass incarceration also consumes funds that could instead support investments in the types of interventions that empower communities and create lasting safety.”
The report recommends seven legislative reforms “to cap sentences at 20 years and right-size the sentencing structure”:
- Abolish death and life without parole sentences, limiting maximum sentences to 20 years;
- Limit murder statutes to intentional killing, excluding sentences such as felony murder, and reduce homicide penalties;
- Eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing and reform sentencing guidelines to ensure that judges can use their discretion to consider mitigating circumstances;
- Provide universal access to parole and ensure timely review;
- Eliminate consecutive sentences and limit sentence enhancements, including repealing “truth-in-sentencing” and “habitual offender” laws;
- Create an opportunity for judicial “second look” re-sentencing within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, regardless of an individual’s offense; and
- Shift all sentences downward, including by de-felonizing many offenses and decriminalizing many misdemeanors.
“Capping all sentences at 20 years is a challenging but feasible policy goal, as demonstrated by its success in other countries and a project worthy of advocates’ and policymakers’ attention,” the report concludes. “The path to a 20-year cap will be different in every jurisdiction, but all steps offer vital hope to people serving lengthy sentences and their loved ones.”
“Of course,” the authors added, “obtaining a proportional, fair system of justice will take more than just shortening sentences, but it is integral to a wholesale reimagining of public safety that focuses on healthy and empowered communities, transforming prisons, investing in evidence-based prevention, and pursuing restorative alternatives to the carceral system.”
A separate report published this month by the reform group Vera Institute of Justice also recommends capping U.S. prison sentences at 20 years.
“Severe sentences do not deter crime, retribution often does not help survivors of crime heal, and the U.S. sentencing system overestimates who is a current danger to the community and when incarceration is needed for public safety,” the authors argued. “Instead, we need a system that privileges liberty while creating real safety and repairing harm.”
“The United States must move away from sentencing policy rooted in retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, which the evidence shows do not deliver safety and satisfaction,” the report asserts. “To reduce mass incarceration, prison sentences should be capped at 20 years for adults convicted of the most serious crimes and 15 years for young people up to age 25.”
“Other sentencing reforms should include removing prior conviction sentencing enhancements, abolishing mandatory minimums, and creating second-look resentencing options for those currently behind bars,” the paper adds.