From the Co-Chairs
A justice system that is both respected and worthy of respect is the cornerstone of a flourishing society. Our criminal justice system is responsible for punishment, rehabilitation, restitution, separation, restoration and more—often simultaneously.
As former federal prosecutors who come from different sides of the aisle, we share a commitment to public safety and justice. While we believe in accountability, we likewise believe that a justice system is only worthy of respect when it metes out punishment in a proportional manner—the sentence must fit the crime. We also recognize the inescapable reality that the vast majority of currently incarcerated people will eventually be released. The question then becomes, again with an eye toward public safety, what should we do to ensure that those being released are equipped to succeed and meet their legal, familial, and societal obligations?
Task Force Co-chair
Long prison sentences, for purposes of this Task Force, are defined as periods of incarceration of ten years or more. We have both prosecuted defendants who were sentenced to “long” prison sentences by this definition and justly so. Long sentences are an important part of the nation’s response to serious and violent crime. It is also true that some long sentences do not best serve the legitimate purposes of sentencing. Long prison sentences should generally be reserved for those who commit the most serious offenses or those who have shown a historical disregard for our laws and the well-being of others.
Concomitantly, ours is a nation of second chances—when and where warranted—and our justice system not only allows for but is built upon a belief that many can be rehabilitated. It is also true many people change and are no longer a threat to the safety and health of others due to age, education, familial bonds, or for other reasons.
Therein lies the dilemma of sentencing: how long is long enough to ensure public safety, adequately punish for the wrongs committed, while also focusing on the data and research attendant to prison time, “aging” out of criminal conduct, and understanding how best to prepare incarcerated persons people for reacclimation to society?
Why would we even discuss the nation’s use of long prison sentences now, amidst a rise in homicide rates and legitimate public concern about public safety? Because this is exactly the time to examine what will actually make our communities safer and our system more just. When crime rates increase, so do calls for stiffer sentencing, often without regard to the effectiveness or fairness of those sentences. When people are fearful, bad policy can take root that has a detrimental impact for many years or to come. Criminal justice policy should be based on facts and evidence, not rhetoric and emotion, and we should be laser-focused on strategies that make the most effective use of our limited resources. In some cases, this could mean taking funds currently spent on the tail end of long sentences—well after the data and research show a defendant is no longer a threat to public safety—and reallocating those funds into law enforcement, substance abuse treatment, and other community-based strategies proven to prevent the commission of serious and violent crime.
Task Force Co-chair
This Task Force was composed of 16 subject-matter experts from across the country with differing views on the justice system and different life experiences—former prosecutors and current public defenders, law professors, judges, law enforcement officers, victims and survivors of crime, individuals who served long sentences, legislators, and corrections officials. We debated and wrestled with difficult legal, policy, and moral issues for a year in an effort to reach consensus on recommendations.
We achieved agreement on some but not every one of the proposals in this report. With other proposals, there was consensus on the objectives sought but differing perspectives on how best to achieve those objectives. And there was robust and continuing debate on the efficacy of still other proposals, which is to be expected on issues the country has wrestled with for decades if not longer. But these proposals all raise important issues that deserve serious consideration by policymakers seeking to improve safety and justice. There’s too much at stake to legislate with a knee-jerk response—the safety of our communities and a justice system worthy of respect hangs in the balance.