Improve the nation’s understanding of the use of long sentences with more data, greater transparency, and a focus on clear costs and benefits
It is often said that “you can’t improve what you don’t measure.”1 Throughout its work, the Task Force grounded its examination of long sentences in the most up-to-date, rigorous, and authoritative data and research available. Nevertheless, it found that while there is an expansive and growing literature on the nation’s use of incarceration, there is comparatively little research focused on measuring the costs, benefits, and overall impact of long sentences.
To help address gaps in such research, the Council on Criminal Justice produced a series of publications. This included summaries of what existing research says about how long sentences influence public safety and the programming needs of those serving long sentences. The Council also published original research on the following topics:
- A statistical portrait of the nation’s use of long prison sentences
- A comparative analysis of long sentences in the U.S. and in other nations
- An estimation of how targeted reductions in the population of people serving long sentences in the Illinois Department of Corrections would impact public safety
- Analyses of the back-end factors that determine time served and how these vary state by state, leading individuals to serve actual sentences different than their court-imposed ones
- A qualitative study of how victims, survivors, and incarcerated people and their families experience the impacts of long sentences
- An analysis of current prison programming targeted to people who are serving long sentences and opportunities to improve outcomes
Long sentences are one of the nation’s key responses to serious and violent crime. To support effective policy, stakeholders need to have better information to assess their impact. The Task Force recommends that state and federal authorities devote sufficient resources to measure how long sentences affect public safety, victims and survivors, incarcerated people, and the families and communities to which they return.
State and federal authorities should support research on the overall use of long sentences, their costs and benefits, and their impacts on public safety, victims and survivors, families of incarcerated individuals, and communities.
In addition to the research called for by the Task Force in other recommendations, state and federal authorities should collect and publish the following information on an annual basis:
- The total number of individuals with juridical sentences of 10 years or more and the total number of people who have served at least 10 years in prison, broken out by decades of time served (10, 20, 30 years, etc.), crime type, and demographic characteristics including race, ethnicity, gender, and age
- Analysis of in-prison disciplinary infractions committed by people sentenced to 10 years or more, broken out by actual time served, crime type, and demographic characteristics including race, ethnicity, gender, and age.
- Analysis of post-release recidivism of individuals sentenced to 10 years or more, broken out by actual time served, crime type, and demographic characteristics including race, ethnicity, gender, and age
State and federal authorities should encourage and facilitate research that seeks to understand:
- How people sentenced to 10 years or more experience their time in custody, documenting factors associated with desistance, behavior change processes, and prison-based program participation
- The impact of long sentences on mental and physical health, including chronic disease and advanced aging
State and federal authorities should encourage research of long sentences’ distinct impact on crime and community well-being, especially in communities that have high concentrations of incarceration rates, violent crime, poverty, and other economic and social disadvantages.