In Spring 2022, the Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) launched the Task Force on Long Sentences, a group of 16 experts representing a broad range of experience and perspectives, including crime victims and survivors, formerly incarcerated people, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement, courts, and corrections. Its mission is to examine how prison sentences of 10 years or more affect public safety, crime victims and survivors, incarcerated individuals and their families, communities, and correctional staff, and to develop recommendations to strengthen public safety and advance justice.
This brief was commissioned by the Task Force to examine how the use of long sentences in the United States compares with the sentencing practices of other countries. To the author’s knowledge, there is no existing source of comparative international data on long sentences that includes individual U.S. states and offense-specific sentences. This brief draws on the most comprehensive, publicly available data on long sentences.
This paper was produced with support from Arnold Ventures, the Ford Foundation, Southern Company Foundation, and Stand Together Trust, as well as #StartSmall, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and other CCJ general operating contributors.
The author is grateful to several individuals who provided valuable guidance on available sources of international data: Catherine Appleton, Marcelo Bergman, Axel Dessecker, Sebastián Galleguillos, Yuji Z. Hashimoto, Catherine Heard, Tapio Lappi-Seppälä, Ashley Nellis, and Dirk van Zyl Smit. Special thanks to CCJ Research Specialist Ernesto Lopez for providing U.S. data for this brief. The author is also thankful to John Maki, Dara Lind, Stephanie Kennedy, and Aaron Rosenthal for their helpful comments.
- The use of long sentences has increased in nations across the globe over the last several decades, but the U.S. remains an outlier in the extent to which it imposes them. Both the average imposed sentence length and the actual amount of time people spend behind bars (time served) are longer in the U.S. when compared with most other countries. These findings are consistent with broader correctional trends that distinguish the U.S. from other nations.
- The U.S. grapples with higher rates of homicide when compared with European countries but this does not fully explain its distinctive policies regarding long sentences. Higher homicide rates may partly explain the more frequent recourse to long sentences in the U.S., but they do not explain the longer average prison sentences imposed for homicide and sexual offenses when compared with other nations.
- The U.S. imposes longer sentences compared to countries with substantially higher rates of violence. Despite having lower homicide rates than many Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries, U.S. states often incarcerate more people and for longer periods of time when compared with Latin American nations.
- The average sentence length imposed in the U.S. is more aligned with the criminal justice policies of Latin American countries than with those of peer industrialized nations. Differences in average sentence length are generally less pronounced when comparing the U.S. to Latin American nations. More prominent disparities exist in comparisons with European countries.
- The U.S. holds a substantial proportion of the world’s population of people serving life sentences (40%) as well as the vast majority (83%) of individuals sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP). Some U.S. state laws include provisions that allow for mandatory confinement periods that are exponentially higher than those used in European nations.
- The distinctive use of long sentences in the U.S. is partly due to the decentralized structure of the political and criminal justice systems. The position of the U.S. as an outlier is exacerbated by states with distinctively large populations of people serving long prison terms.
Several challenges arise when comparing the use of long sentences across different nations. For a detailed description of the data sources used and the steps taken to ensure a valid cross-national comparison, please see this brief’s supplemental methodology report.
Comparing U.S. States to Countries
Nearly 90% of incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are under the jurisdiction of state correctional authorities. Due to the substantial discrepancies in sentencing policies and incarceration rates across states, most analyses in this brief compare the sentencing trends in individual U.S. states to those of other nations. This level and scale of intra-country variation is not generally as pronounced in other nations; most other countries have more nationalized sentencing systems, and in those with decentralized systems, the discrepancies across regional jurisdictions are not as significant as they are in the U.S. American federalism allows for an exceptional degree of diversity in criminal law and policy, even when compared to other countries with federal systems (i.e., countries in which power is shared between the federal government and regional governments). Because criminal justice policies vary starkly across states, U.S. states operate more like different countries with independent criminal justice systems. It is therefore appropriate to report both national and individual state averages when possible.
The Use of Long Sentences in Comparative Context
Long sentences have increased in the U.S. and in many other countries
The U.S. has imposed prison sentences more frequently and for longer periods of time over the last several decades.1 In 2019, 56% of people in prison were serving a long sentence, up from 46% in 2005, though the share of this population increased because of a reduction in shorter sentences rather than an increase in the number of people receiving long sentences. The length of time served by people sentenced to 10 years or more has also increased over time. Between 2005 and 2019, there was a 60% increase in the average amount of time served by people who were released after serving a long sentence, from 9.7 years in 2005 to 15.5 years in 2019.2
Similar trends have occurred in other countries. In Belgium, for instance, 73.5% of felony cases resulted in a sentence of 10 or more years in 1994; by 2003, this figure increased to 90.6%.3 In England and Wales, sentences of 10 or more years increased by 17.8% between 2002 and 2006.4 In Germany, the proportion of the long-term prisoner population sentenced to life imprisonment increased from 21.4% in 1995 to 30.2% in 2012.5 Similar increases in long sentences have been noted in other European nations, such as France and Lithuania.6
What percentage of incarcerated individuals are serving long sentences and what are the outlier countries?
Figure 1 shows the percentage of all people in prison sentenced to 10 or more years (including all individuals serving life sentences) in Chile, Peru, various parts of Europe, and 40 U.S. states. The U.S. is a clear outlier in this comparison. Among the states and countries for which data were available, the 31 jurisdictions with the highest proportions of imprisoned people serving long sentences were U.S. states. Georgia and Alabama led the pack, each with more than 70% of the total incarcerated population serving long sentences (40,820 and 17,228 individuals, respectively). The percentage of people sentenced to long prison terms in each of these two states is more than two and a half times higher than in countries such as Italy (27.3% of the incarcerated population, 10,936 individuals) and Lithuania (26.4% of the incarcerated population, 1,549 individuals), and nearly three times higher than in Chile (23.7% of the incarcerated population, 6,532 individuals). Notably, these countries are more similar to U.S. states at the lower end of the scale for long-term imprisonment, such as North Dakota (26.2% of the incarcerated population, 499 individuals) and Maine (21.9% of the incarcerated population, 483 individuals – the lowest percentage among U.S. states). No U.S. state included in the comparison finds itself in the bottom quartile of this distribution. Three European nations (Liechtenstein, Monaco, and San Marino) had no people in prison who were sentenced to 10 or more years.
Figure 1: Percentage of incarcerated individuals sentenced to long sentences (10+ years) in Europe, Chile, Peru, and 40 U.S. states
Notes: European data were drawn from the SPACE I report7 and are based on the incarcerated population on January 31, 2019. Data for Chile were obtained for the year 2019 from Gendarmeria de Chile.8 Data from Peru were published by the Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informatica and are based on the prison population in December of 2018.9 Figures for U.S. states are drawn from National Corrections Reporting Data (NCRP) on 40 states for 2019.10 The average percentage of people in prison who were sentenced to 10 or more years for the sample of 40 states is 52.4%.
One hypothesis for the disparity in the prevalence of long sentences across jurisdictions relates to the higher rates of violent crime-and specifically higher rates of homicide-in the U.S. when compared with other industrialized nations.i This is a plausible explanation given that homicide rates in nearly all U.S. states are much higher than those observed in European countries. For example, in 2018, Louisiana had a rate of 11.4 homicides per 100,000 population, Missouri had a rate of 9.8 homicides, Alabama had a rate of 7.8 homicides, and Georgia had a rate of 6.2 homicides. By contrast, Latvia had a rate of 4.4 homicides per 100,000 population-the highest in Europe for that year-while Lithuania had a rate of 3.3 homicides per 100,000, England & Wales had 1.2 homicides per 100,000, and both Italy and the Netherlands reported less than one (0.59) homicide per 100,000 population.
Inspired by a similar analysis of incarceration rates conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts,11 Table 1 presents the percentage of the prison population sentenced to 10 or more years in 40 U. S. states and 35 nations, along with a ratio of this indicator relative to the homicide rate. A higher ratio of long-term prisoners to homicide rate indicates that a jurisdiction imposes long sentences more frequently relative to its homicide rate. A lower ratio implies that the recourse to long sentences is relatively less prevalent when accounting for the homicide rate. Relative ranks for all jurisdictions are presented in the last two columns. The first column summarizes the data included above in Figure 1.
It is not surprising to see jurisdiction rankings shift when accounting for homicide rates. While Georgia and Alabama were ranked first and second for the percent of the prison population sentenced to 10 or more years, these states dropped down to the 36th and 55th ranks, respectively, with the adjustment for their higher homicide rates. Norway, which is ranked among the lowest nations for incarceration rate (73rd out of 75 jurisdictions included in the comparison) and percentage of people serving long prison terms (70th out of 75), moves up to the 16th rank when considering its low homicide rate, which is one of the lowest in Europe (0.47 homicides per 100,000 population).
Table 1: Percentage and rank of long-term prison population in 40 U.S. states and 35 nations, with homicide-adjusted estimates
Note: Consistent with prior research,12 a lag effect of one year is presumed between homicide and incarceration. The ratio of long-term prisoners to homicide rate (column 3) refers to the percentage of the prison population sentenced to 10 or more years in 2019 (column 1) divided by the homicide rate in 2018 (column 2). Incarceration rates are based on 2019 NCRP data for 40 U.S. states, and the most recent data available for other countries.13 Original figures were rounded to one decimal point in Table 1, which may result in slight discrepancies in the calculation of the ratio of long-term prisoners to homicide.
The comparisons in Table 1 contrast U.S. states with European nations (with the exceptional inclusion of Chile and Peru, two Latin American nations with accessible public data on sentence length). The ranks presented would look quite different if the comparison included more Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries given that homicide rates are typically higher in the LAC region than in the U.S. For reference, in 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported five homicides per 100,000 population for the U.S., in contrast to a rate of 52.1 homicides per 100,000 for El Salvador, 38.9 for Honduras, 26.7 for Brazil, and 25.3 for Colombia.14 These rates are substantially higher than those reported in Louisiana (11.4 per 100,000 population) and Missouri (9.8 per 100,000), the U.S. states with the highest homicide rates in the same year. Despite these stark differences in homicide rates, incarceration rates in many U.S. states are higher than in most Latin American nations. For instance, when comparing the incarceration rates in 40 U.S. states and 33 LAC nations (figure not shown), eight of the top 10 jurisdictions with the highest incarceration rates are U.S. states. The average incarceration rates are considerably higher in the U.S. states included in this comparison (366 per 100,000 population) when compared with the LAC countries (278 per 100,000). Scholars have also noted that the average sentence length and time served are substantially higher in the U.S. compared to Latin American countries.15
A Look at How Average Sentence Length Varies
How long are prison sentences?
To provide some historical background, Figures 2a and 2b draw on comprehensive comparative data published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) to show the evolution of average sentence length for homicide and rape around 1980, 1990, and 2000.16 As early as the 1980s, the U.S. maintained an average sentence length that was considerably longer than in most other nations in the comparison (around 1980: 21.2 years for homicide; 10.3 years for rape); these figures remained stable through the early 1990s and 2000s. Around the year 2000, the average imposed sentence length in the U.S. was more than twice as long for homicide and about five times longer for rape compared with the Netherlands (8.4 years for homicide, not shown in Figure 2a; 2.3 years for rape) and Sweden (8.2 years for homicide; 1.9 years for rape).
Figure 2a: Average sentence length for homicide (in years), 1980-2000
Figure 2b: Average sentence length for rape (in years), 1980-2000
Note: The Netherlands are excluded from Figure 2a because homicide data were not available in the early 1980s and 1990s. Data source: Farrington, Langan, & Tonry (2004) 17
Figures 3a, 3b, and 3c present average sentence length with more recent data collected over the last decade in Europe,18 Latin America,19 and the U.S.20 Data on average sentence length were available for only a limited number of European and Latin American nations but nonetheless provide valuable international perspective. The U.S. ranked 7th among the 20 countries for which sentence length information was available, with an overall average sentence length of 6.4 years for all crime categories (Figure 3a). This figure is higher when compared with all European countries and some Latin American nations included in the analysis (e.g., Finland: mean sentence length of 1 year; Belgium: mean sentence length of 1.3 years; Chile: mean sentence length of 5 years; Argentina: mean sentence length of 5.7 years), but lower than El Salvador (mean sentence length of 14.7 years) and Mexico (mean sentence length of 11.4 years).
Figure 3: Comparison of average sentence length (in years) between the U.S., Europe, and Latin America
Figure 3a: Average sentence length for all convictions
Figure 3b: Average sentence length for homicide convictions
Figure 3c: Average sentence length for sexual assault convictions
Notes: U.S. data on average sentence length were collected by BJS for the year 2016. These data were based on individuals’ first releases from state prisons in 44 states after serving time for any given offense; these states accounted for 97% of all individuals released from state prisons nationally in that year.21 In this BJS report, all sentences exceeding 100 years, as well as life and death sentences, were set to a fixed maximum of 100 years. The BJS report does not provide average sentence length data for each state. European data were available through the most recent publication of the European Sourcebook of Crime and Criminal Justice Statistics and draw on the prisoner population in 2015.22 All average sentence lengths were converted from months to years. The exclusion of life and indeterminate sentences from the average sentence length figures provided in the European data may have resulted in some under-estimation of this indicator, but this difference in operationalization is unlikely to have affected the position of European countries relative to other nations (see Methodology notes). Latin American data were published in Bergman and Fondevila23 and draw on surveys conducted with representative samples of people admitted to prison over a 2-year period in each country. Data collection was conducted in 2012 in Argentina, Sao Paulo, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, and Mexico, and in 2016 in Costa Rica and Honduras. Brazilian data only include Sao Paulo, the largest state in Brazil and the state with the highest prison population.
When considering the specific offenses that are most likely to result in long sentences, the U.S. is a clear outlier. For homicide (Figure 3b), the U.S. imposed the longest sentence length on average (40.6 years), followed not too distantly by Mexico (34.1 years) and El Salvador (33.5 years). Data on sexual offenses were not available for Latin American countries. For these crimes, Figure 3c shows that the U.S. is again an outlier when compared with Europe, with an average sentence length for sexual assaults (12.2 years) that is more than twice as high as in Hungary (6 years), Scotland (5.6 years), and England and Wales (5.2 years); about 10 times higher than in Finland (2.9 years); and nearly 14 times higher than in the Netherlands (0.9 years). The BJS 2016 data (included in figures 3a, 3b, and 3c) did not distinguish between rape and other sexual assaults, but a subsequent report based on 2018 data disaggregated these categories.24 When focusing specifically on rape convictions (figure not shown), the U.S. maintains its outlier position, with an average sentence length (18.2 years) that is nearly three times higher than in Scotland (7.1 years) and Hungary (6.8 years), and about 10 times higher than in the Netherlands (1.9 years).
The higher average sentence length in the U.S. may partly be a result of the fact that American policies allow for sentences exceeding 100 years, and that life and death sentences are attributed the value of 100 years in BJS estimates. Death sentences are not prevalent enough to substantially impact the overall average sentence length, but life sentences are imposed far more frequently in the U.S. when compared with European and Latin American nations (see Methodology section). The U.S. figures would be lower if the BJS had attributed a smaller value to life and death sentences (e.g., 60 or 80 years instead of 100 years). The BJS reported that the average sentence length for murder would be much lower if it excluded life and death sentences (an average sentence length of 20.2 years versus 40.6 years with the inclusion of these sentences).25 Even with the exclusion of life and death sentences, however, the U.S. figure would remain much higher than in all the European countries included in the comparison, as well as most Latin American nations, with the exception of Mexico and El Salvador. Given the relatively high prevalence of life sentences in the U.S., it would be illogical to exclude these sentences from estimates of average sentence length (see the Methodology section for a discussion on this issue as well as related challenges in the measurement of average sentence length).
Overall, these figures suggest that the average sentence length imposed in the U.S. is more aligned with the sentencing practices of Latin American countries than those of industrialized peer nations in Europe. The higher homicide rates in the U.S. when compared with European nations may partly explain why long sentences are imposed more frequently but they do not shed light on why the average prison sentence is substantially longer in the U.S. for homicide and sexual assaults. Moreover, the U.S. has a lower homicide rate than most Latin American nations, but it imposes longer sentences for this crime. Most people convicted of homicide in Latin America will serve less than 20 years.26
How do U.S. sentencing practices compare to those used in other countries?
It is well established that U.S. sentencing practices are highly distinctive from those of other industrialized nations.27 Two of the key features that differentiate the U.S. criminal justice system from other nations are the independent and disparate sentencing systems across states and the pervasive use of plea bargaining, which can complicate cross-national comparisons of sentencing policies. Some scholars have hypothesized that the unparalleled dependence on plea bargaining in the U.S. has contributed to mass incarceration as well as the imposition of longer sentences, partly because the sentences imposed after a conviction at trial are “inflated to induce guilty pleas, not because the sentences imposed following guilty pleas are more lenient than they otherwise would have been.”28
The Ten-Country Prisons Project29 is a valuable source of comparative data on incarceration from a sample of diverse nations. It involves a collaborative effort between the World Prison Brief and the Institute for Crime & Justice Policy Research at the University of London. One of the project’s reports examined the different sentencing frameworks that may explain cross-national disparities in the use of long sentences. The report draws on interviews with 70 criminal defense lawyers across 10 countries, who provided the probable sentencing outcomes for three hypothetical offense scenarios involving domestic burglary, drug importation, and intentional homicide. (See Appendix for a description of the vignettes and the predicted sentencing outcomes for each country.)
For domestic burglary, the predicted sentence in the U.S. (data were drawn from New York State) was estimated to be about five years, which is longer than the predicted sentence in nearly all other countries included in the comparison (England and Wales: 3 years; the Netherlands: 3-5 months; Hungary: 1-2 years; Australia: up to 4 years; Thailand: 1-3 years; India: 3 years; South Africa: 3 years; Brazil: 3-4 years). Only Kenyan legal practitioners estimated a higher likely sentence for burglary (7 years).
The predicted sentence for drug importation is longer in the U.S. when compared with European countries (barring deportation, 10 years in the U.S. versus 3.5-5 years in England and Wales, 3-8 years in Hungary, and 3-5 months in the Netherlands). Some countries have harsher provisions for drug trafficking: up to 25 years in South Africa and even the death penalty in Thailand.
Overall, the predicted sentences reported in the U.S. differed from the sentencing outcomes reported in European nations and were more on par with those of less developed countries in the sample. The variation was especially striking when comparing the U.S. to the Netherlands, where legal practitioners estimated the probable sentences for both burglary and drug importation as 3-5 months, compared to five or more years under American sentencing policies. The predicted differences for homicide sentences between the U.S. and other industrialized nations are not as pronounced in this comparison because this crime is likely to get a longer sentence in all countries.ii In the absence of a plea deal, the individual depicted in the Ten-Country Prisons Project homicide scenario would likely get 25 years to life in New York, life imprisonment in England and Wales (with a minimum of 25 years in custody), up to 20 years to life in Hungary, and 20 to 28 years in Australia. The Netherlands is an outlier, with a probable sentence of 3 to 12 years (depending on the evidence of a treatable mental health disorder). It is important to note that these are sentences predicted by practitioners; actual sentences imposed for homicide convictions in the U.S. are substantially higher when compared with other countries (see Figure 3b above).
Eighty-five percent of countries and territories in the world—or 183 out of 216 nations—have a statute that allows for sentencing an individual to life in prison. At least 64 countries have statutes for de facto life sentences (i.e., a requirement to serve 35 years before the possibility of release), including 15 countries that do not formally include provisions for life sentences. Internationally, there has been a steady increase in the number of people sentenced to life imprisonment in the last several decades, from about 261,000 individuals in 2000 to 479,000 individuals in 2014.30 The major contributors to this growth include the U.S., India, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and Turkey.
Global differences in the use of life imprisonment
The increase in the population sentenced to life imprisonment in the U.S. has been largely driven by the rise in Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentences, which increased by 320% between 1992 and 2016 (from 12,453 individuals in 1992 to 53,290 individuals in 2016). This figure contrasts to a more modest increase (89%) in Life With the Possibility of Parole (LWP) sentences in the U.S. during the same period (from 57,392 to 108,667 individuals). Scholars have noted that LWOP sentences were widely adopted across the U.S. as an alternative-and, in some cases, a mandatory alternative-to the death penalty after the 1970s. By contrast, in Europe, Hungary is the only nation that has a constitutional provision that allows for the imposition of LWOP sentences.31
It is estimated that U.S. prisons hold 40% of individuals sentenced to life worldwide and 83% of those sentenced to LWOP.32 In 2016, nearly 162,000 people were serving a life sentence in the U.S.-a number six times higher than the total (27,000) for the entire continent of Europe (including Turkey and Russia). Figure 4 presents the percentage of incarcerated individuals sentenced to life across various nations and U.S. states. Six of the 10 leaders in this list are U.S. states; Utah, Massachusetts, California, Alabama, New York, and Nevada are only surpassed by India, Liberia, Nepal, and Bangladesh.
Over three-quarters of countries with life imprisonment laws have a provision for release,33 with wide variation in the required minimum amount of time served before the possibility of release (e.g., Belgium: 10 years; Denmark and Finland: 12 years; Austria, Germany, and Switzerland: 15 years; France: 18 years; Italy: 26 years; Estonia: 30 years). For the 98 countries with statutory rules establishing minimum time served, people serve an average of 18 years before being released. Put simply, in Europe, a life sentence seldom means perpetuity. Anders Behring Breivik, who was convicted of committing 77 murders in Norway in 2011, was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed by Norwegian criminal law. Norway does, however, have provisions to extend the sentence if an incarcerated individual is deemed to pose a threat to public safety.
These figures contrast sharply with U.S. sentencing laws.34 In Georgia, people sentenced to life must serve a minimum of 30 years before being considered for parole. In Texas, individuals must serve a minimum of 40 years. In Tennessee, the minimum required time served for life sentences is 60 years (which may be reduced to 51 years with sentence credits). These release provisions are significantly more severe than those implemented in European nations.
Figure 4: Percentage of sentenced prisoner population serving a life sentence in various jurisdictions across the world, 2014
Notes: Figures for U.S. states are drawn from 2014 NCRP data on 39 states.35 Data for the U.S. is drawn from van Zyl Smit & Appleton 2019.36 Data for all other countries included in this figure were from 2014 (or the nearest possible date).37 A number of countries and U.S. states had no cases of life imprisonment: Afghanistan, Alaska, Andorra, Angola, Bolivia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Connecticut, Costa Rica, Croatia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, Iceland, Kosovo, Liechtenstein, Macao (China), Monaco, Montenegro, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Norway, Panama, Portugal, Puerto Rico, San Marino, Sao Tome e Principe, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Paraguay, Timor-Leste, Turkmenistan, Uruguay, Venezuela.
How Does Time Served Vary Internationally?
In most countries, the maximum sentence length allowed by law is often quite different from the actual imposed sentence and time served. The required minimum time served before the consideration of release varies widely across countries.38 In Belgium, for instance, first-time offenders must serve at least one-third of the imposed sentence before any form of conditional release is considered, while people who have been previously incarcerated must serve at least two-thirds of the imposed sentence. In France, Poland, and the Czech Republic, first-time offenders are required to serve at least half of their imposed sentence, and those convicted of repeat offenses must serve two-thirds.
Figures 5a and 5b provide a historical perspective on the changes in average time served across several countries.39 Mirroring the trends in average sentence length (Figures 2a and 2b), average time served for homicide and rape was higher in the U.S. and Australia compared to other nations with available data. Interestingly, between 1980 and 2000, the average time served for homicide increased in all countries included in the comparison (Figure 5a).
Figure 5a: Average time served for homicide (in years), 1980-2000
Figure 5b: Average time served for rape (in years), 1980-2000
Note: The Netherlands are excluded from Figure 5a because homicide data were not available in the early 1980s and 1990s. Data source: Farrington, Langan, & Tonry (2004).40
Figures 6a and 6b contrast the average sentence length and time served for homicide and rape in seven countries, using the most recent available data. Overall, both indicators were highest in the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom. While the U.S. imposed the longest sentences for homicide and rape, individuals served roughly half their sentences prior to being released. Australia was an outlier in that it imposed long sentences for homicide and rape and also had a high average time served; for homicide, Australia’s time-served-to-imposed sentence ratio was higher than in any other country, with individuals serving 71% of the pronounced sentence. The percentage of the initial sentence that was actually served was also relatively high in the Netherlands and Switzerland (with individuals serving between 66% and 70% of the original sentence), but the imposed sentences in these countries were substantially lower when compared with the U.S. and Australia.
Figure 6a: Average sentence length and time served for homicide (in years), 2000
Figure 6b: Average sentence length and time served for rape (in years), 2000
Data source: Farrington, Langan, & Tonry (2004).41
Who are the People Serving Long Sentences?
Detailed data on the profiles of people serving long sentences are limited in the U.S. and seldom publicly available in other countries. Comparisons of the racial and ethnic composition of the prison population are especially difficult because European countries do not typically publish data on the race, ethnicity, or religious background of justice-involved populations. The reasoning for this data gap in Europe is based on the concern that public access to such information could lead to discriminatory practices.42 In the U.S., racial and ethnic minorities overwhelmingly make up the life-sentenced population; 46% of individuals serving a life sentence are Black and 16% are Latinx, and more than half (55%) of those serving a LWOP sentence are Black.43
Researchers have highlighted the high prevalence of past trauma among people serving long sentences. Traumatic events are defined as exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.44 Across a wide range of populations, experiences of trauma have been linked to multiple symptoms, including aggression, impulsivity, hypervigilance, misappraisal of threat, sensation seeking, fear, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.45 A study examining various features of long-term imprisonment in 11 European nations46 found that 88% of people serving long sentences reported having experienced at least one traumatic event-and an average of three traumatic events-prior to incarceration. Nearly a quarter reported sexual contact when they were minors by someone who was five or more years older. Between 58% to 86% of individuals serving long sentences had clinical levels of psychological distress (defined as feelings of fear, helplessness, and horror) or other mental health disorders that required treatment. The lowest reported value (58%) was noted in England and Wales and the highest (86%) in Finland.
Similar results were reported in a study of 58 individuals serving long sentences in France.47 All participants in the study had experienced at least one traumatic event during their lifetime. On average, they experienced more than eight different types of traumatic events (Mean=8.4, Median=8, SD=3.9), and most individuals experienced a traumatic event on more than one occasion. Almost one-third of study participants reported having been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault (32.1%, n=18). Most participants reported psychological distress as a result of these incidents. Participants often reported that past traumatic events were not adequately addressed by mental health professionals in prison over the course of their many years behind bars.
Although some empirical studies have provided a description of individuals serving long sentences in different countries (usually with a qualitative design), national databases with detailed information about various characteristics of this population are lacking. Given that people serving long sentences may have distinctive needs from other incarcerated individuals, this is an important consideration for future data gathering efforts.48
The U.S. possesses features of both industrialized and developing countries. Its commonalities with member nations of the European Union include many similar social, political, and economic characteristics, from comparable unemployment rates to similar levels of educational attainment and spending.49 However, the U.S. is also clearly distinctive from Europe in many regards. Its decentralized government means that U.S. states largely operate autonomously, with their own independent criminal justice systems. The U.S. also grants substantial discretionary power to prosecutors-a key distinction from other industrialized nations-and elects (rather than appoints) most district attorneys. European prisons grant incarcerated individuals a wider range of social and political rights. In France, for example, correctional law guarantees certain rights to incarcerated people, such as the right to obtain identity papers, to vote, to have access to social aid and employment opportunities, to participate in programs, to maintain family ties, to have reasonable access to telephone services and, for some categories of individuals (elderly persons, for example), to receive sentence reductions.
Incarceration rates are higher and long sentences more prevalent in the U.S. than in European nations. However, the U.S. also grapples with higher homicide rates. Prior work has highlighted the elevated rates of serious violent crime in the U.S. when compared with other industrialized nations.50 Given these facts, a natural hypothesis for the disparity in the use of long sentences between the U.S. and other nations is that the American criminal justice system contends substantially higher rates of violent crime, specifically homicide. While higher homicide rates in the U.S. may partly explain why long sentences are imposed more frequently when compared with European nations, they do not explain the higher average sentence length and longer time served by individuals convicted of the same crimes on the two continents.
It is noteworthy that many U.S. states punish more severely than countries that contend with higher levels of violence. The U.S. has a lower overall homicide rate than most Latin American nations but incarcerates more people and for longer periods of time. The comparison with Latin America highlights the importance of including countries of varying levels of development in international comparative analyses. It is well established that the U.S. is distinctive from Europe, with regards to crime rates as well as sentencing policies, and there are valuable insights to gain from extending the comparison to other countries. Future cross-national analyses should endeavor to include a larger sample of LAC nations, as well as countries from the African and Asian continents.
Ultimately, the association between crime and imprisonment policies is complex. When violent crime rises, it may take lawmakers several years, or even longer, to adopt policies in response. Racial dynamics may also influence sentencing policies.51 While international data do not allow for robust comparative analyses of race and ethnicity among incarcerated populations, analysis of U.S. states suggests that sentencing laws may be a response to the size of the Black population and racial differences in support for more punitive policies, and that White public support influences policy adoption.52 To better understand the link between violent crime and sentencing policies, we need more rigorous analyses that would ideally include indicators that may be confounded with punitiveness in various countries, including welfare spending, income inequality, and trust in government.53
Leading sentencing and parole experts, in agreement with the recommendations of the Model Penal Code,54 have argued that people serving long sentences should be eligible for release after no more than 15 years of confinement.55 This recommendation is consistent with the release policies of most European nations, but it stands in sharp contrast to the laws that are in effect in many U.S. states. As American leaders examine the nation’s criminal justice law and policy, it is important to consider the value in drawing on the examples of peer industrialized nations to assess and reform policies that guide the distinctive use of long sentences.
About the Author
Lila Kazemian is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a faculty member in the doctoral program in Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. She is a graduate of Université de Montréal. She earned her Ph.D. at the Institute of Criminology of the University of Cambridge in 2005. Her research interests include desistance from crime, long-term incarceration, post-prison reintegration, life-course and criminal career research, and comparative criminology.