Making Sensible Sentencing Laws

Mass Incarceration

Last week, we covered Marc Mauer’s proposal where he asserted that they should cap sentences to 20 years in prison “except for individuals who present an undue risk to public safety.”

The core of his argument is that “for a number of reasons, sentences of more than 20 years are largely counterproductive and are extremely costly.”

Most notably, he argues, “Most offenders ‘age out’ of crime.” He cites research that shows that, after reaching a peak during the teen years, “offending begins to decline as individuals are in their 20s and drops sharply as they reach their 30s and 40s. As a result, for each successive year of incarceration there are diminishing returns for crime control.”

Indeed, the National Research Council concluded, “Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”

Moreover, there is a false promise of long sentences for public safety. He argues, “Support for extremely long sentences, such as life and life without parole, is premised in part on the assumption that individuals receiving such sentences will reoffend if released. However, an analysis by The Sentencing Project found that individuals released from life sentences were less than one third as likely to be rearrested within three years compared to other formerly incarcerated individuals.”

Instead, studies show that caring for aging prisoners creates large and growing expenses. And long sentences incur opportunity costs as they divert resources from other public safety measures.

Mr. Mauer’s approach is not one size fits all. He made the case that the 20-year cap on prison terms would include the ability for parole boards or judges to add additional time to protect the public.

This would control costs in a system that exceeds capacity by as much as 40 percent, while bringing the policies in the US more in line with those of other industrialized countries.

The New York Times in an article, “Too Old to Commit Crime,” argues that “This proposal has little chance of becoming law. But a compelling case can be made for it nonetheless.”

They cite research by social scientists that shows “that all but the most exceptional criminals, even violent ones, mature out of lawbreaking before middle age, meaning that long sentences do little to prevent crime.”

They data is compelling – “Homicide and drug-arrest rates peak at age 19, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, while arrest rates for forcible rape peak at 18. Some crimes, such as vandalism, crest even earlier, at age 16, while arrest rates for forgery, fraud and embezzlement peak in the early 20s. For most of the crimes the F.B.I. tracks, more than half of all offenders will be arrested by the time they are 30.”

Most criminal careers, as discovered in research by Carnegie Mellon criminologist Alfred Blumstein, last for a duration of five to ten years.

The Times notes, “Property criminals, like burglars and car thieves, tend to stop in their 20s, while violent criminals are more likely to continue into their early 30s. Drug-crime careers can be lengthier, stretching into the mid-30s, yet long sentences have had little effect on the drug trade.”

“When you lock up a rapist, you take his rapes off the street. When you lock up a drug seller, you recruit a replacement,” Professor Blumstein said.

There are a number of reasons why criminal careers are short. The Times writes, “Neuroscience suggests that the parts of the brain that govern risk and reward are not fully developed until age 25, after which lawbreaking drops off. Young people are more likely to be poor than older people, and poorer people are more likely to commit crimes.”

They continue, “Regardless of why offenders age out of trouble, American sentencing practices are out of whack with the research on criminal careers.”

The answer is simple – American criminal law is not designed for the typical criminal, but rather the exceptional criminal.

This is despite evidence that “incarceration also produces crime” as inmates “learn new ways to break the law from fellow offenders.” Furthermore, “Prison also hurts their physical and mental health in ways that make them less productive when they are released.”

The Times concludes, “A sentence that outlasts an offender’s desire or ability to break the law is a drain on taxpayers, with little upside in protecting public safety or improving an inmate’s chances for success after release.”

However, as the Times notes, for many, prison is not just about preventing crime, but about punishment. In this way, longer sentences send the message that acts are unacceptable.

The Times notes, “Some conservatives who support sentencing reform say that Mr. Mauer’s proposal goes too far, offering a one-size-fits-all leniency to even violent offenders.” On the other hand, “Yet looking at the social science, one wonders if Mr. Mauer’s idea goes far enough. After all, 47 percent of federal inmates are serving sentences of more than 10 years — longer than the typical duration of a criminal career.”

The Times notes that some should never be released based on “the horror of their crimes” or “their impact on the community’s sense of safety,” or “because they remain unbowed and were never rehabilitated.”

However, that population group is exceedingly small and American policy right now is aimed at the exceptional, rather than the typical, lawbreaker.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in an editorial this past weekend notes, “Reducing prison populations to rational levels will take courage, foresight and fresh ideas. The alternative is wasting billions of dollars that could be better spent on education, health care, crime prevention, transportation and other vital needs.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting


About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 thoughts on “Making Sensible Sentencing Laws”

  1. TrueBlueDevil

    There are some interesting points, but at what cost? These articles seem to wash over the fact that we have had a dramatic drop in our murder rate nationwide, and now you want to cast those successes aside?

    David also wrote: “For most of the crimes the F.B.I. tracks, more than half of all offenders will be arrested by the time they are 30.” If so, then that means that almost half will be arrested after they are 30.

    It seems like gang activity is through the roof, and I wonder how many of their crimes go unreported if the crimes occur within their community? In Napa Valley I read that there are now over 20 identifiable gangs. Fresno, a formerly sleepy agricultural town, has a car theft rate that rivals New York.

    My recent visit to the DEA’s Most Wanted section for Northern California showed that the vast majority of those wanted seem to have been born in Central America – how will this impact our drug use, crimes, and policies?

    These numerous proposals for across-the-board decriminalization seem a little premature.

  2. Frankly

    These points fail to factor the probable increase in criminal activity due to the change in a risk-benefit analysis for a would-be criminal.

    Today – “If I do this crime and get caught I could go to prison for 30-40 years.”

    After this change – “If I do this crime and get caught I cannot be imprisoned for more than 20 years.”

    Weaker punishment will result in more crime.

  3. tribeUSA

    Perhaps this issue can be rigorously investigated–isn’t there a wide range, among the 50 states, in sentencing guidelines? How about a rigorous study on recidivism rates and other crime data thruout the range of sentencing in the 50 states?

    I’m one of those who agree that there should be a better way than long jail terms to deal with low-level and nonviolent offenders. Before pot legalization, it made me sick to think of peaceful pot-smoking dreamers thrown in jail among hard-core gang-bangers and other violent criminals (of course there are some violent drug-users, particularly among meth users from what I’ve gleaned, but in my younger days I knew some drug users, border-line addicts, who would not hurt a fly and would go homeless before they would consider robbing or stealing for drug money).

    More mandatory GPS ankle bracelets (ones that are very difficult to remove) and mandatory work programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders seems to me would be preferable to long jail terms–perhaps the convict could be given a choice between jailtime or the mandatory work/ankle bracelet monitoring.

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