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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,982
August 15, 2019
Let's Cut the Prison Population
By Mike McManus

Too many Americans are in prison. In 2017 there were 1,489,000 prisoners, about 183,000 of whom were in federal prisons, with 1.3 million in state facilities. These numbers are down about 1% from 2016 and down by 100,000 prisoners since 2007.

However, state prison populations jumped 222% from 1980 to 2010. A major reason is that one in seven prisoners is serving a life sentence. In some states, one in three inmates has a life sentence. Many prisons have become de facto nursing homes with a growing elderly population. The average taxpayer cost per year is $30,000 per inmate.

What sense does this make? A criminal who has served 20 or 30 years is usually not a danger to society. Crimes are committed by young men. Arrests for violent crimes peak during late teens and early twenties.

In 2012 Maryland released nearly 200 prisoners who had served more than 30 years, mostly for homicides and rape. Fewer than 1 percent have committed a crime in the half decade since their release.

The annual cost of mass incarceration is $81 billion. That figure could be cut substantially if those serving life sentences were released years before they died in prison.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to reduce excessive sentences. Legislation authorizing sentence reductions in old cases has passed in California and the District of Columbia. Sen. Cary Booker has proposed something similar at the federal level.

In fact, more than 3,000 old prisoners were released from federal custody in July based on their good conduct, under the First Step Act proposed by President Trump and agreed to by Congress in December.

James Foreman, Jr., a Yale Law School professor and Sarah Lustbader, a senior legal counsel of the Justice Collaborative, co-authored an article, "Rethinking Extreme Sentences," published by The New York Times August 2, 2019. They proposed that prosecutors "can recognize their role in creating the crisis and work toward fixing it. They should start by opening "sentence review units" which would consist of small dedicated teams of lawyers, investigators, data scientists and social workers within the prosecutor's office.

"Each team would review past cases, and when they find sentences which seem egregious, prosecutors would give these cases a second look."

That's a sensible proposal which ought to be considered by every prosecutor's office. The concept of sentence review has been used to root out cases in which an innocent person was sent to prison in error. (See Professor Farmer's book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.)

Foreman and Lustbader ask why prosecutors should lead the movement to cut down long sentences? "Because they were and in many places still are, a major driver of the sentencing explosion."

One prosecutor who is setting up a sentence review unit is Terry Krasner, Philadelphia's District Attorney. He says, "Sometimes extreme sentences reflect unscientific beliefs; sometimes they reflect racism; and sometimes they reflect judges who punish you 10 times harder if you went to trial."

Krasner adds that "There are a lot of people in jail who very clearly don't need to stay in jail."

Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be arrested and convicted than whites. In 2017, there were 475,900 blacks in prison and 336,500 Hispanics compared to only 436,000 whites, who can hire better lawyers to defend them. In the broader population, whites outnumber blacks 5-1 - yet black prisoners outnumber whites. Racism is doubtless a factor.

The key question is how long should those found guilty of major crimes be sentenced? I suggest that a maximum sentence might be 20 to 25 years - and that anyone who has served that much time should be released, unless they committed more crimes in prison.

Life sentences are rare in Britain, but common in the U.S. Last week an English court handed a whole-life sentence to Dale Crogan for murdering four people, including two policewomen. He will never be eligible for release - one of only 50 British criminals serving such a sentence.

By contrast, at least 40,000 Americans are imprisoned without hope of parole. Including 2,500 under the age of 18.

It is time for America to reconsider its extreme sentencing.


Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, a syndicated columnist and past president of Marriage Savers. To read past columns, go to Hit Search for any topic.


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