Change is often a good thing. Thinking outside the box can bring about dynamic and fresh solutions to longstanding problems. That’s why I’m hoping that President Trump’s administration — which is on record as wanting to upend the status quo in Washington, D.C. — will employ this kind of thinking with the subject of prison sentencing reform.
For too long, politicians have told us that a lengthy prison sentence equals increased public safety and crime deterrence, that giving convicts the longest possible prison term will keep them from future criminal activity and scare others from committing a similar crime. Some lawmakers have also fully embraced the idea of mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug-related cases, even though it takes power away from the judges who actually hear the evidence.
But guess what. Turns out this mindset has not only resulted in massive and costly prison overcrowding but it’s also based on questionable logic.
The National Research Council, or NRC, the nonpartisan research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, took a deep dive into the ramifications of the U.S. policy of doling out prison sentences that are as long as possible. It concluded that because criminal behavior generally decreases with age, locking up people on the taxpayers’ dime until they’re 70 or 80 years old is counterproductive.
Now that’s not to say that long sentences or even life sentences will be ineffective for “high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders,” as the NRC wrote in its 2014 report “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.” It’s just that applying excessively harsh sentencing across the board has had no effect on the number of crimes committed. It clogs our prisons, and as of 2014, incarceration costs the country $80 billion a year.
So, what would actually help decrease the crime rate? Criminologists have found that those committing crimes usually have no idea what kind of sentence their actions might net them and that “certainty of apprehension” is far more important to them.
The NRC study reports that “arrests ensue for only a small fraction of all reported crimes.” For example, the number of robberies reported to police have outnumbered robbery arrests by about 4 to 1, and the offense-to-arrest ratio for burglaries is about 5 to 1. These ratios have “remained stable since 1980.” Those bent on bad deeds know the odds of getting caught, which gives them a decisive advantage, so they take their chances.
The underlying problem here is easy to see: It is not the length of the prison sentence. Rather, it’s the efficiency of our criminal justice system and the citizenry’s willingness to become involved. If eyewitnesses came forward more often, police could make more solid arrests, and prosecutors could launch more effective prosecutions. And if courts were able to follow up by scheduling swift trials, criminals would begin to see the odds are no longer in their favor.
See what I mean about thinking outside the box? We’ve been focusing on sentencing when we should have been strengthening and streamlining our justice system.
As America ages, the crime rates in almost all categories have been going down and the prison population has decreased a bit. But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about how to further reduce the numbers. The Sentencing Project organization notes that 2.2 million Americans are now incarcerated. It reports that, among other things, some states have modified sentencing guidelines by reclassifying felonies as misdemeanors. But the group believes the “‘tough on crime'” mindset of the past should be replaced by a “‘smart on crime'” political environment nationwide. I agree. Getting smarter about how we spend that $80 billion could begin a remarkable new cycle.
First, we’ve got to launch a rigorous nationwide treatment program to rehabilitate and offer meaningful job training to those lower-level prisoners who are bound for future freedom. That could turn stigmatized convicts into important taxpaying members of society after their release.
Second, we need to keep in mind that criminals don’t usually sprout from loving, stable, hardworking, two-parent families. Children exposed to a violent upbringing are at a much higher risk of getting caught in the cycle of violence and committing crimes as an adult. Spending some of those billions to help at-risk children break free from the cycle would go a tremendously long way toward reducing the prison population.
This isn’t just thinking outside the box. This is common sense.