More Than Half of Incarcerated in U.S. Prisons Serving Sentences of 10 Years or More, Claims Analysis

By Leila Katibah    

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Sentencing Project (TSP) this week released a vast analysis of the hundreds of thousands of people in U.S. prisons serving 10 or more years, and made a case for humane and pragmatic criminal justice reforms.

 

The analysis found that in 2019, more than 260,000 people in U.S. prisons had been incarcerated for at least ten years, and nearly three times as many people were serving 10-year sentences or longer.

 

Although mass incarceration was already at play in the year 2000 with 587,000 people serving such sentences, these findings show a dramatic growth since then, with the number reaching more than 770,000, according to the analysis.

 

Criminological evidence suggests criminal careers usually end within 10 years, and recidivism rates fall dramatically within 10 years, said TSP.

 

“After a decade of imprisonment, many incarcerated people mature, take accountability for their actions, and acquire skills to support their successful re-entry,” explains Nazgol Ghandnoosh, Ph.D., senior research analyst at TSP and co-author of the report.

Although the analysis focuses on the decade mark, The Sentencing Project urges readers to keep in mind the proportion of those who have served over 15 years is also very high, and the findings show numerous geographic and racial disparities across the growing trend of lengthy sentences.

 

Regarding geographic variation, some of the key findings report, “In California, 29 percent of imprisoned people had already served at least 10 years in 2019. In Washington, DC, the level was even higher in 2020, at 39 percent. By 2021 in Texas, 25 percent of imprisoned people had served at least a decade.”

 

Even more stark are the racial disparities in sentencing, as they noted, “In 2019, Black Americans represented 14 percent of the total U.S. population, 33 percent of the total prison population, and 46 percent of the prison population who had already served at least 10 years.”

 

Among the reasons for the over-representation of Black Americans serving long sentences are the racially-biased criminal justice policies and practices, charged TSP.

 

The Sentencing Project suggests tackling racial inequity in lengthy prison terms by eliminating pretrial detention, underfunded public defense, prosecutorial misconduct, biased parole decision-making and sentencing enhancements related to criminal histories.

 

They also propose “dramatically increasing investments in effective violence prevention and interruption interventions outside of the criminal legal system,” coupled with developing racial impact statements on the effects of criminal laws on different populations.

 

The report also includes recommended measures to curtail mass incarceration, lengthy sentences and geographic and racial disparities, arguing “the American Bar Association urges lawmakers to authorize courts to take a ‘second look’ at criminal sentences after 10 years of imprisonment.”

 

The Sentencing Project also urged all jurisdictions to create an automatic judicial sentence review process within 10 years of imprisonment, with a rebuttable presumption of resentencing.

 

To downsize the inflated sentencing structure, TSP suggested repealing mandatory minimum sentences, reducing overcharging, limiting nearly all maximum prison terms to 20 years, and “expediting minimum eligible release dates through good time credits, earned time credits, and parole—and increasing use of discretion to curb excessive prison terms.”

About The Author

Leila Katibah is an undergraduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is double majoring in Sociology and Middle East Studies with a minor in Professional Writing. After graduating, Leila plans to attend law school to pursue a career in Public International Law.

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