Long prison sentences rank among the most complicated and polarizing topics in American criminal justice today.
The United States has used long prison sentences for most of its history.1 But in the 1970s through the early 1990, as communities across the country experienced prolong and severe spikes in violent crime, lawmakers increased sentence length and the amount of time people served for violent, drug-based, and repeat offending.2 Driven in part by these changes and a more recent decline in people serving shorter sentences, the share of incarcerated people serving long sentences of 10 years or more has grown substantially. According to analysis by the Council on Criminal Justice, 63% of people in state prison were serving a sentence of 10 or more years in 2020, up from 46% in 2005.3
The nation’s use of long sentences raises challenging questions about the relationship between crime, punishment, and public safety. What role, for example, do long sentences play in deterring people from engaging in crime? How long do prison sentences need to be to prevent incarcerated people from committing new offenses once they are released? Is there an effective way to distinguish which people serving long sentences can be safely released and which cannot?
At the same time, these issues cannot be separated from complex moral and political questions. What, for example, is the just response to individuals who perpetrate serious crime and violence? Is it reasonable to use long sentences to address non-violent offending? The criminal justice system imposes long sentences to achieve multiple purposes, including punishment, healing for victims and survivors, and rehabilitation for people who have perpetrated violence. How should we prioritize these goals? And what should be done to address how long sentences contribute to the nation’s overall use of incarceration and, in particular, the glaring racial disparities within American prison populations?
These are not abstract questions. They ask how the criminal justice system should grapple with some of the most important social and political problems of our time and the most painful and devastating experiences that people, families, and communities can endure. Data and research are essential to help confront these challenges but cannot solve them.
In conducting its work, the Task Force sought to uphold the following interrelated guiding principles:
- Keep people safe from serious and violent victimization.
- Recognize that all people deserve to be treated with dignity.
- Acknowledge and alleviate the impact of racial and other biases.
- Help all victims and survivors of crime heal and recover from the impact of violence and trauma.
- Allow for the possibility of redemption.
- Balance the interests of victims and survivors with the traditional purposes of punishment, including incapacitation, deterrence, rehabilitation, reintegration.
- Rely on data, research, professional expertise, and lived experience.
- Make our criminal justice system worthy of the respect of all people.
At a fundamental level, assessing and refining long sentences requires moral vision, a capacity for good faith disagreements, and a shared commitment to finding common ground.
The Task Force on Long Sentences was launched in 2022 with a mission of critical reflection and consensus building. With a diverse membership of national leaders and experts — from former prosecutors and law enforcement officials to victims and survivors of serious and violent crime as well as people who served significant time behind bars — the Task Force spent one year assessing the nation’s use of long sentences. Defining long sentences as terms of 10 years or longer, the Task Force examined their effects on the criminal justice system and the populations it serves.4 As part of their work, members considered changes in law and policy intended to advance safety and justice and promote respect for the humanity of those most affected by long sentences.
The 14 recommendations detailed in this final report are the result of the Task Force’s deliberations, disagreements, and compromises. Readers can find additional perspectives by members about the recommendations at the end of the report. The Task Force hopes its work will inspire legislators and policymakers to take steps to improve long sentencing law and policy in their jurisdictions.
Director, Task Force on Long Sentences