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June 30, 2021

The Sentencing Project releases "A New Lease on Life" looking at release mechanisms and recidivism realities

Images (3)The Sentencing Project today released this timely new report titled "A New Lease on Life" which starts with these "Findings and Recommendations":

A dramatic consequence of America’s investment in mass incarceration is life imprisonment.  Today there are more people serving life sentences alone than the entire prison population in 1970, the dawn of the mass incarceration era.  Though life sentences have always been allowable in the U.S., it is only in recent decades that these sentences have become normalized to such an extent that entire prisons are now filled or nearly filled with people serving life terms.

Despite a cultural tendency for Americans to view the U.S. crime and criminal legal system as “exceptional,” other countries have experienced ebbs and flows in crime rates but have not resorted to the levels of imprisonment, nor the lengths of prison sentences, that are commonplace in the U.S.  To the contrary, restoration of human dignity and the development of resilience are at the core of an evolved criminal legal system; systems elsewhere that emphasize the responsibility of government support to returning citizens serves as a model for the U.S.

In this report we set out to accomplish two tasks.  First, we examine reoffending rates among people released from prison after a violent crime conviction and review research on the topic, covering both domestic and international findings.  Second, we provide personal testimony from people who have left prison after a violent crime conviction.  Inviting impacted persons to share their transition experiences serves policymakers and practitioners in strengthening necessary support for successful and satisfying reentry from prison. This report focuses on the outcomes of a narrow segment of the prison population: people convicted of violent crimes, including those sentenced to life and virtual life sentences, who have been released to the community through parole or executive clemency.  People with violent crime convictions comprise half the overall state prison population in the U.S. They are depicted as the most dangerous if released, but ample evidence refutes this.


• We can safely release people from prison who have been convicted of violent crime much sooner than we typically do. Most people who commit homicide are unlikely to do so again and overall rates of violent offending of any type among people released from a life sentence are rare.

• Definitional limitations of the term “recidivism” obstruct a thorough understanding of the true incidence of violent offending among those released from prison, contributing to inaccurate estimates of reoffending.

• People exiting prison from long term confinement need stronger support around them. Many people exhibit a low crime risk but have high psychological, financial, and vocational demands that have been greatly exacerbated by their lengthy incarceration.

• People exiting prison after serving extreme sentences are eager to earn their release and demonstrate their capacity to contribute in positive ways to society. Prison staff and peers view lifers as a stabilizing force in the prison environment, often mentoring younger prisoners and serving as positive role models.

We make five recommendations that, if adopted, will advance our criminal legal system toward one that is fair, efficient, and humane.

1. Standardize definitions of recidivism. Authors of government reports and academic studies should take great care to standardize the definition of criminal recidivism so that practitioners, policymakers, the media, and other consumers of recidivism research do not carelessly interpret findings on reoffending statistics without digging into either the meaning or the accuracy of the statements.

2. Insist on responsible and accurate media coverage. Media consumers and producers alike must insist on accurate portrayals of crime despite the temptation to skew media coverage so that rare violent crime events appear as commonplace. Heavily skewed media coverage of rare violent crime events creates a misleading view of the frequency of violent crime. Add to this the overly simplistic assumption, allowed by inarticulate reporting, that people released from prison have caused upticks in violence.

3. Allow some level of risk. Reset the acceptable recidivism rate to allow for reasonable public safety risk. The public’s risk expectation is currently set at zero, meaning that no amount of recidivism is politically acceptable in a system that “works” even though such expectations are not attainable in any sphere of human endeavor or experience. But this expectation is largely based on highly tragic and sensationalized events that are falsely equated as the result of releasing people from prison. We have to balance our aspirations for a crime-free society with reasonable approaches to public safety and human rights considerations for both those who have caused harm and those who have been victimized by it.

4. Reform and accelerate prison release mechanisms. Decisionmakers considering whether to grant prison release rely too heavily on the crime of conviction as the predominant factor under consideration. This approach is neither fair nor accurate. It is unfair because it repunishes the individual for a crime for which they have already been sanctioned. Risk of criminal conduct, even violent criminal conduct, closely tracks aging such that as people age into adulthood there is a sharp decline in proclivity to engage in additional acts of violence.

5. Substantially improve housing support. Inability to secure housing after release from prison was mentioned frequently by people we interviewed for this report. Failure of the correctional system to ensure stable housing upon exit from decades-long prison sentences imposes unnecessary challenges. Though some released persons will be able to rely on nonprofit charity organizations, shelters, or family, the most vulnerable people will fall through the cracks. We have both a public safety and a humanitarian obligation to avoid this result.

June 30, 2021 at 01:40 PM | Permalink


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