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March 21, 2019

"Reduce prison populations by reducing life sentences"

The title of this post is the title of this new Washington Post piece authored by Daniel Nagin.  Here are excerpts:

The imprisonment rate in the United States is now five times larger than it was in the early 1970s, and most of that increase happened at the state level.  Marc Mauer and Ashley Nellis of the Sentencing Project have made a bold recommendation for unraveling mass incarceration — abolition of life sentences.  Most lifers are in state prisons.

Research demonstrates that increases in already long prison sentences, say from 20 years to life, do not have material deterrent effects on crime.  There is no good reason for believing that life sentences are a better deterrent than the Mauer-Nellis recommendation of a maximum sentence of 20 years.

The political and social causes for mass incarceration are complex, but the mechanism is easily described — the system sends more people to prison for longer periods of time. One unintended consequence of this is that our prisons have become old-age homes.  Between 1993 and 2016, the percentage of U.S. prisoners ages 50 or older grew from 5 percent to 20 percent, and the number of those ages 40 years or older more than doubled, from 17.9 percent to 40.4 percent.

From a public safety perspective, this makes no sense.  Decades of research by criminologists demonstrate that nature’s best cure for crime is aging — crime is a young man’s game.  The principal driver of the graying prison population is the growing proportion of lifers, mostly in state prison systems.  One in 7 U.S. prisoners is now serving life or a virtual life sentence, a total of more than 200,000 people.  In 1984, there were only about 34,000 lifers....

The Mauer and Nellis proposal for complete abolition of life sentences is probably a bridge too far for our elected state legislators and governors.  But more moderate changes, such as reducing the use of life sentences and increasing the possibility of eventual parole for those serving life, could have a significant effect without jeopardizing public safety.

March 21, 2019 at 02:18 PM | Permalink


Doug, I have an appeal working its way up in North Carolina that the mandatory LWOP punishment for felony murder is not "graduated punishment" under the Eighth Amendment/Graham v Florida. Even if the death was accidental, if it occurred in the course of a wide variety of felonies, it is first degree/LWOP.

I believe there is a distinction of constitutional proportions between "graduated" punishment and "disproportionate" punishment" Nobody is litigating "graduated punishment" to my knowledge. Graham clearly states they are separate concepts.


Posted by: bruce cunningham | Mar 22, 2019 10:17:10 AM

The Judicial System is a complete mess as we all know. Every case is different and requires different situations. Most Juror's are uninformed of their duty or rights. Prosecutors are the money makers of the Court (whether guilty or not guilty).

In my opinion: Mass murderers should be put to death as soon as possible. A mass murderer is one that kills for no reason and enjoys it.
A person that has committed murder, other then self defense, should be heard and judged by a jury and given appropriate penalty (not something like a 100 year sentence) and considering the violence that was involved.
A lot of prisoners are in prison without the prosecutor proving his case or having any evidence. This is shameful, all about the money!

I am only an American from the sovereign state of Texas, so what do I know?

Posted by: LC in Texas | Mar 22, 2019 8:40:17 PM

The author is invited to live next to Lee Malvo and have his daughter marry Drew Peterson.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Mar 22, 2019 8:58:02 PM

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