Sentencing / Post-Conviction

39% of prison inmates incarcerated with little public safety rationale, study says

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A three-year research project by the Brennan Center examining federal and state criminal laws along with convictions and sentences for the nation’s 1.46 million prisoners has determined that 39 percent of them—576,000 men and women—are behind bars for “no compelling public safety reason,” costing nearly $20 billion a year. Significantly, the report recommends that some convicted of more serious and sometimes violent crimes, about 14 percent of them—212,000 men and women—have already served long prison terms and likely could be released in the next year with little risk.

The study and analysis, billed as the first of its kind, recommends changes in sentencing laws for an approach providing so-called default sentences that are proportional to a specific crime and give judges some leeway, such as consideration of criminal history, mental health or addiction problems or the details of the crime. Such sentences would weigh seriousness of the crime, victim impact, intent and recidivism.

The New York Times tackled that particular problem in an interactive feature that went online Dec. 9, the day the Brennan Center report was released. The Times story has links to several other reports and studies. With the headline “Four Violent Crimes: You Decide the Sentence,” it offers details of four real cases, notes the length of time each has been in prison and asks the reader to click one of four choices for how much more time should be served. The reader then sees how, as of today’s tally, the percentages for each choice in verdicts by more than 11,000 other readers.

In recent years, overincarceration has become a bipartisan issue, which got a big boost in 2010 with the launch of Right on Crime, with prominent conservatives—such as former Attorney General Edwin Meese, former drug czar William Bennett and Newt Gingrich—signing onto a statement of principles to help conservative legislators who fear political pushback if they support reform of some tough-on-crime laws, the ABA Journal reported in 2012.

While some still argue that judges should have broad discretion in sentencing, and their critics say that could lead to more racial disparities and the continuation of harsh sentences, the study, titled “How Many Americans are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” offers an alternative, Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, writes in the study’s preface.

“This approach is grounded in the premise that the first principle of 21st century sentencing should be to protect public safety, and that sentences should levy the most effective, proportional, and cost-efficient sanction to achieve that goal,” Chettiar writes. “It aims to create more uniform sentences and reduce disparities, while preserving judicial discretion when needed.”

James Austin, a criminologist and president of the JFA Institute, which researches the causes of crime and the justice system’s response to crime, worked on the project with the Brennan Center’s Lauren-Brooke Eisen, Chettiar and a statistical research team.

At the time of this posting, the public jury of New York Times readers overwhelmingly were for the lowest possible length of continued incarceration in the four serious crime cases considered. One example: Patrick Coleman of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was convicted of joining other gang members in the murder of a man in a rival gang. He claimed innocence and argued that his overworked public defender failed to tell the court that Coleman was with his father at the time and was not in the gang. And the co-defendant who fingered Coleman had admitted to not being truthful in grand jury testimony. Coleman has been in prison for 26 years.

In the New York Times interactive feature, at the time of this posting, 90 percent of the readers who responded said he should stay in prison no more than an additional 1-5 years. That is the least amount of prison time among the other choices: 5-10 years was clicked by 5 percent of the readers; 10-25 years clicked by 1 percent; and 2 percent called for life in prison.

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