The Next Step in Criminal Justice Reform: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes

Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration

  • Half of U.S. prison population serving time for a violent offense
  • Report features reforms in 19 states over 20 years with more effective responses to violent crime

(From Press Release) – As the White House today prepares to celebrate a criminal justice reform achievement, passage of the First Step Act, a new report from The Sentencing Project suggests the critical next step to ending mass incarceration is addressing excessive punishments for violent offenses.

“While the bipartisan consensus around criminal justice reform has grabbed headlines, real reductions in mass incarceration cannot occur without confronting the excessive punishments for people convicted of violent offenses,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, author of The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes. “While still uncommon, states have shown a more humane approach to achieving public safety is possible.”

The Next Step highlights 15 reforms in 19 states implemented over the past two decades that have produced more effective, fiscally sound, and humane policies for people convicted of violent crimes. These reforms include: shortening excessive prison terms for violent convictions, scaling back collateral consequences, narrowing broad definitions of violence, ending long term solitary confinement, and rejecting the death penalty.

Recent reforms in Mississippi and California exemplify this next step in criminal justice reform. Mississippi legislators reformed the state’s truth-in-sentencing 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%. In 2018, California expanded specialized parole hearings that account for immature brain development to young adults under age 26.

Long sentences ultimately 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.

Nationwide criminal justice reforms have reduced the number of people imprisoned for drug crimes by 22% between 2007 and 2015. But 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%.

To read the full report, The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes by Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Senior Research Analyst at The Sentencing Project, click here.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Jim Hoch

    “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%.”

    So by increasing the sentences of violent criminals the violent crime rate has declined. This has disproved the theory that if you put violent criminals in jail other people would commit more violent crimes to keep up the average.

    I can see how this is a terrible problem and we need the violent crime rate back up to pre-incarceration levels.


    1. Craig Ross

      Most of the research suggests people age out of crime, specifically violent crime by a certain point in time.  Yet we spend resources incarcerating people who are generally not harmful.  Costs increase as people age too.  So it’s penny foolish and pound foolish.

        1. Alan Miller

          Not sarcastic.  Don’t believe in your crusade, man.

          What is sarcastic is chastising you for once again using “indentation privilege”.

        2. Alan Miller

          Thanks for not using indentation privilege.

          You are on a crusade to change the system.  You use data.  The data may be correct.  I don’t believe in what you are trying to change.  Working to get people out of jail for possession of marijuana is one thing; for violent crimes, different animal, and not an animal I am going to spend my time trying to save.

          1. David Greenwald

            The point of using evidence based approaches is that a good number of people who committed violent crimes in their youth, do not represent a threat once they’ve aged in the system. So why keep them in custody when the costs of housing them escalate and their threat level drops?

        3. Alan Miller

          I could buy that on a case-by-case basis, but it seems there are so many other injustices to focus on even in the legal system, this seems like this issue, as such, is the last one anyone is going to get mass public support for.

        1. David Greenwald

          But my point is that it’s quite costly to engage in this strategy when most people are no longer threats. For the most part, you should be able to risk assess people out of prison as they age without any risk.

          1. David Greenwald

            Not when you consider how low the blanket risk is that a person over 60 will commit a violent crime.

        2. David Greenwald

          Could be wrong Jim Hoch, but the discussion is about limiting the length of sentencing for older cases, not prevent punishment/ incarceration in new ones.

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