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April 2, 2019

"The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new report written by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project.  Here is its executive summary:

While the First Step Act and other criminal justice reforms have limited the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes, they have yet to meaningfully reduce excessive penalties for violent crimes.  Nearly half of the U.S. prison population is now serving time for a violent offense, including assault and robbery.

Although the violent crime rate has plummeted to half of its early-1990s level, the number of people imprisoned for a violent offense grew until 2009, and has since declined by just 3%.  This trend stems from increased prison admissions and sentence lengths, despite evidence that excessive penalties are counterproductive.  Long sentences incapacitate older people who pose little public safety threat, produce limited deterrent effect since most people do not expect to be caught, and detract from more effective investments in public safety.

For those who seek to end mass incarceration, there are signs of hope.  In the past two decades, local, state, and federal lawmakers, governors, judges, and practitioners have rejected the death penalty, shortened excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaled back collateral consequences, narrowed broad definitions of violence, and ended long term solitary confinement.  The 15 reforms featured in this report, implemented in over 19 states, represent more effective, fiscally sound, and morally just responses to violence.  While exceptions in a punitive era, these reforms serve as models for the future.  For example:

Rejecting torture in prison

In 2017, Colorado Department of Corrections’ executive director Rick Raemisch restricted solitary confinement to only serious violations in prisons and set a maximum duration of 15 days.

Using discretion to reduce extreme sentences

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner seeks to end the city’s heavy reliance on life without parole (LWOP) sentences.  He has made case-by-case evaluations when making resentencing offers to individuals convicted as juveniles, shown restraint in charging decisions and plea offers in homicide cases, and endorsed legislation to allow people serving LWOP to be evaluated for parole after 15 years of incarceration.

Legislators reducing excessive sentences

Mississippi legislators reformed the state’s truth-insentencing requirement for violent crimes in 2014, reducing the proportion of a sentence that individuals with certain violent convictions have to serve before becoming eligible for parole from 85% to 50%.

Recognizing the rehabilitative potential of youth and young adults

In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that LWOP sentences were unconstitutional for non-homicide crimes committed by juveniles. The Court also later ruled that mandatory LWOP sentences for homicide failed to recognize young people’s “diminished culpability and greater prospects for reform.”  In 2018, California built on this precedent by directing individuals convicted under age 26 to “Youth Offender Parole Hearings.”

Scaling back collateral consequences

Floridians voted in 2018 to re-enfranchise people with felony convictions, including those convicted of most violent crimes.

The reforms identified in this report demonstrate that it is possible to undo excessive penalties for violent crimes while also promoting public safety. They are the next step of criminal justice reform and offer blueprints for policies that will better enable an end to mass incarceration within our lifetime.

April 2, 2019 at 05:25 PM | Permalink

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