By Christopher Zoukis
A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law claims imprisoning 576,000 state and federal inmates – 39 percent of the nation’s 1.46 million total – serves no compelling purpose, and alternative sentencing could save almost $20 billion annually without compromising public safety.
The study entitled “How Many Americans Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” claims to be the first-ever analysis of the best ways to reduce the social, economic and racial costs of overpopulated prisons. Released Dec. 9 and drawing on three years of research by lead author and veteran criminologist Dr. James Austin, along with Brennan Center researchers and a statistical analysis team, the study first analyzed criminal codes and data on convictions and sentences.
Based on its findings on the relative ineffectiveness of incarceration, the report team recommends a fundamental shift in sentencing to enable state and federal governments to reduce total prison populations down to 887,000.
The study maintains that 212,000 current inmates – or 14 percent of total prisoners – have already served long enough for major offenses that they could be safely released within the next year, and that alternatives to prison – such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or mental health or drug addiction treatments — would be more effective for about 364,000 more, or about 25 percent of total prison populations.
One place to start, the report suggests, are the nearly 66,000 prisoners whose most serious offense is drug possession. On average, they now draw one-year prison sentences which, the report argues, could be better replaced with addiction treatment and possible other alternatives.
If the nation’s prison population were downsized as the report suggests, 59 percent of the remaining inmates would be serving time for violent offenses, compared with the 46 percent at present convicted of such offenses.
The Brennan Center report also recommends a new framework for criminal sentencing, drawing on what it sees as science-based studies on public safety and rehabilitation issues. It rejects the calls for scrapping all or most mandatory and minimum sentences in favor of giving judges virtual free rein in setting sentences, viewing that approach as more likely to bring uneven and unfair results, and to worsen racial disparities in sentencing.
Instead the report proposes that state legislatures and Congress adopt a new solution: diverting less-serious offenses to alternatives to incarceration, absent unusual circumstances, and for more serious offenses setting default sentences proportional to four key factors: seriousness, impact on victims, evidence of intent and likelihood of recidivism.
Even for the more serious offenses, the report calls for shorter mandatory sentences, and for allowing judicial consideration of individual factors such as the defendant’s criminal record, addiction or mental health issues, and the specifics of the offense. In that way, the report claims, sentences will be shorter and more uniform, but still leave room for judicial discretion where individual circumstances warrant.
The report also suggests cutting terms by 25 percent for six serious crimes — murder, robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, weapons offenses and major drug trafficking cases — and allowing current inmates to petition for retroactive reductions of their sentences if lower default sentences are adopted.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.