Mar 14, 2019

National Criminal Justice Month: Research is clear – we need sentencing reforms

Post by Freedom Partners

March is National Criminal Justice Month, focusing attention on our country’s justice system and much-needed reforms.

In the last few decades, the United States has taken a tough-on-crime approach to justice. Policymakers at all levels of government have championed mandatory minimums and harsh sentencing as a means of deterrence, under the assumption that prison sentences could drive down crime rates.

But that assumption may only tell half the story.

Research shows that harsh, one-size-fits-all sentencing isn’t deterring crime, is likely contributing to recidivism, and is costing taxpayers billions.

It has also created a massive overcriminalization problem that has led to the U.S. becoming the world leader in incarcerating people – a statistic no one should be proud of.

Here are three reasons we need major sentencing reforms in the states:

  • Overly severe punishment doesn’t deter crime. According to a study from the National Institute for Justice, long sentences do not effectively deter criminals. The study found that long stays in prison may actually increase crime rates as “inmates learn more effective crime strategies from each other, and time spent in prison may desensitize many to the threat of future imprisonment.” This is especially concerning when we think about people who commit lower-level offenses spending more time in prison than their crimes necessitate.
  • Mandatory minimums are not reducing the crime rate like we’re led to believe. In fact, mandatory minimums may be causing more recidivism. Studies done by the National Research Council found “lengthy sentences are an ineffective approach to preventing crime.” In cases where mandatory minimums have been used, judges have very little flexibility regarding sentencing. They are often locked into a one-size-fits-all system of justice little ability to decide cases based on all the evidence and circumstances.
  • Data-based methods of rehabilitation are a better approach. Take Texas, for example, a state you might assume has a reputation as tough on crime. Since changing its approach to focus on rehabilitation and preparation for release, Texas has closed eight prisons, saved over $3 billion dollars while experiencing crime rates at the lowest they’ve been since the 1960s. The last time crime rates were this low in Texas was before “tough on crime” was the trendy method of justice.

The First Step Act, signed into law in late 2017, is already leading to monumental reforms of the federal sentencing process. Under the law’s new guidelines, Matthew Charles of Tennessee was granted a reduced sentence. Charles paid his debt and transformed his life while serving more than 20 years in prison. Thanks to the First Step Act, he’s using his second chance as a free man to contribute to his community and help others.

Several states are taking the same smart-on-crime approach as the First Step Act, opting for data-driven rehabilitation programs that prepare prisoners to succeed rather than focusing primarily on punishment. The approach is working in Texas and many other states, and now on the federal level, too.

But more work remains. Hopefully, policymakers in states and in Washington continue passing smart sentencing reforms that protect public safety and help people earn a second chance!

There’s more to criminal justice reform than sentencing. Read more in our series during Criminal Justice Month!