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Long Prison Terms

Eliminating excessive prison sentences and developing a public-health informed and community-driven violence prevention strategy is necessary to reduce mass incarceration.

We are at a critical moment in the burgeoning criminal justice reform movement. Sentencing and correctional reform efforts continue to progress but have largely focused on the “low hanging fruit” of excessive use of incarceration for minor drug and property offenses.

While this approach has slowed the rate of prison growth, it has not yielded meaningful reductions in mass incarceration. Reforms targeting people convicted of nonviolent offenses are a necessary first step in rejecting the “tough on crime” policies of the past, but the evidence is clear that they are insufficient to effect deep and sustainable reductions in the prison population.

Rolling back mass incarceration requires moving beyond minor drug and property offenses and expanding focus to include long prison sentences and time served, particularly for violent offenses. People in prison for violent offenses have been the primary driver of the prison population for the last two decades. Recent trends in prison admissions suggest that violent offenses will continue to be the major driver of the prison population moving forward.

People serving long sentences place a major strain on public budgets and have a cumulative effect on the correctional population—even when admissions to prison decline, people serving long sentences are “stacking up” in prison.

Costly, inhumane, and racially discriminatory, long prison terms do little to deliver on promises of increased public safety.

Cost: As people grow old in prison, their housing and medical care costs increase exponentially. This aging of the prison population due to excessive sentences has been well documented. Several states have adopted geriatric and medical parole policies aimed at reducing the number of older individuals in prison, but very few people have been released on compassionate grounds, and these policies are largely ineffective at reducing imprisonment.

Public Safety: There is a wide body of evidence demonstrating that criminal behavior declines with age. Prison sentences that keep people incarcerated well beyond their “crime-prone” years are providing no additional public safety benefits. This is borne out in the incredibly low recidivism rates for people released from prison after serving long sentences.

Deterrence: Research has found that longer prison sentences deter future criminal offending. At least one study has documented that longer sentences promote criminality. The evolving consensus in the field of criminal justice is that people are not deterred by the severity of the punishment (sentence length), but rather the certainty and swiftness of receiving a sanction.

Unfortunately, long sentences have been largely left out of recent reforms, many considering them the political “third rail.” Yet this is the very population that holds the promise of dramatically reducing the prison population without posing a threat to public safety.

Learn more about the emerging campaign to end long prison terms and dramatically shift our approach towards violence and incarceration.

>> Real Steps Toward Ending Mass Incarceration <<

Justice Policy Institute

Category: Reports

Document Year
Restoring Local Control of Parole to District of Columbia 2020
Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland 2019
The Ungers, 5 Years and Counting: A case study in safely reducing long prison terms and saving taxpayer dollars 2018
Smart, Safe, and Fair: Strategies to prevent youth violence, health victims of crime, and reduce racial inequality 2018
Defining Violence: Reducing Incarceration by Rethinking America's Approach to Violence 2016
Crime Statistics and Holistics Violence Prevention 2016

Category: Video Content

Document Year
The Trouble with Long Prison Terms 2020
You Deserve Better Than prison: Messages to Youth from Women Serving Life 2020
We Are More Than Our Worst Day 2020
Pennsylvania's Commutation Process: Naomi Blount's Experience 2020
What is Dignity 2019
The Ungers: A Matter of Time 2019
MD / COVID19 Video 2020

Outside Organizations

Category: Long Prison Terms

Organization Document Year
ACLU A Living Death: Life without Parole for Nonviolent Offenses 2013
ACLU of Washington About Time: How Long and Life Sentences Fuel Mass Incarceration in Washington State 2020
FAMM Second Chances Agenda 2020
Politico Magazine Why America Needs to Break Its Addiction to Long Prison Sentences 2019
Prison Policy Initiative Eight Keys to Mercy: How to shorten excessive prison sentences 2018
The Marshall Project For Those Serving Long Sentences, Politics is a Lifeline 2020
The Marshall Project Life Expectancy 2015
The Marshall Project What's the Meaning of "Life" When Sentencing Kids? 2020
The Marshall Project “Juvenile Lifers” Were Meant to Get a Second Chance. COVID-19 Could Get Them First. 2020
The National Academies The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences 2014
Ohio Justice Policy Center Beyond Guilt 2018
The Osborne Association Resources on Aging in Prison 2018
Safe and Just Michigan Fact Sheet: Objective Parole  
Safe and Just Michigan New law reforms parole guidelines in Michigan 2017
The Sentencing Project Sentencing Policy 2018
The Sentencing Project Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences 2017
The Sentencing Project Long-Term Sentences: Time to Reconsider the Scale of Punishment 2018
The Sentencing Project A Proposal to Reduce Time Served in Federal Prison 2015
The Sentencing Project Juvenile Life Without Parole: An Overview 2020
The Sentencing Project People Serving Life Exceeds Entire Prison Population of 1970 2020
The Sentencing Project The Next Step: Ending Excessive Punishment for Violent Crimes 2019
Urban Institute A Matter of Time: The cuses and consequences of rising time served in America's Prisons 2017
Vera Institute for Justice Banning juvenile life sentences without parole is good policy 2010

Category: Community Violence

Organization Document Year
Cambridge University Press Community-Driven Models for Safety and Justice 2019
Center for Court Innovation From Chicago to Brooklyn: A Case Study in Program Replication 2011
Common Justice HealingWorks  
Common Justice, The Opportunity Agenda Building a Narrative to Address Violence in the U.S. 2018
Common Justice, Vera Institute of Justice Accounting for Violence: How to Increase Safety and Break Our Failed Reliance on Mass Incarceration 2017
Cure Violence Creating Safer and Healthier Communities 2020
Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund The Impact of Local Violence Intervention Programs 2019
Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence New Jersey Gun Violence Impact Analysis and Policy Audit 2018
Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence Investing in Intervention: The Critical Role of State-Level Support in Breaking the Cycle of Urban Gun Violence 2018
Healing Justice Alliance Best Practices for Supporting Frontline Violence Intervention Workers  
John Jay Research and Evaluation Center The Effects of Cure Violence in the South Bronx and East New York, Brooklyn 2017
John Jay Research and Evaluation Center CBVP Final Report: Street By Street 2016
Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence Evaluation of Baltimore’s Safe Streets Program: Effects on Attitudes, Participants’ Experiences, and Gun Violence 2012
Juvenile Justice Information Exchange How Hospitals Are Helping to Reduce Gun Violence 2019
The Marshall Project Making Sense of Senseless Violence 2017
Movement Towards Violence as a Health Issue Addressing Violence as a Health Crisis with Health Methods 2016
National Network for Safe Communities Group Violence Intervention  
National Network of Hospital-based Violence Intervention Programs NNHVIP Policy White paper – Hospital-based Violence Intervention: Practices and Policies to End the Cycle of Violence 2019
NPR Baltimore Sees Hospitals As Key To Breaking A Cycle Of Violence 2016
Urban Institute Public Investment in CommunityDriven Safety Initiatives 2018
Urban Institute Engaging Communities in Reducing Gun Violence 2016
Urban Institute Gun Violence Affects the Economic Health of Communities 2017
The Marshall Project Is Prison the Answer to Violence? 2017
The Joyce Foundation Gun Violence Prevention 2020

Category: Community Violence / Long Prison Terms

Organization Document Year
The Marshall Project Politicians Still Say Longer Prison Sentences Prevent Gun Violence — But Do They? 2015
The Public Health Center of the Yale Roosevelt Institute A Public Health Crisis: The Health Costs of Gun Violence and Its Links to Incarceration 2020

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Through a combination of groundbreaking research, communications strategies and technical assistance, we inform advocates, policymakers and the media about fair and effective approaches to justice and community well-being.

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