Today, nearly everyone acknowledges that our criminal justice system needs fixing, and politicians across the spectrum call for reducing prison sentences for low-level drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses. But this consensus glosses over the real challenges to ending mass incarceration. Even if we released everyone imprisoned for drugs tomorrow, the United States would still have 1.7 million people behind bars, and an incarceration rate four times that of many Western European nations.
Mass incarceration can be ended. But that won’t happen unless we confront the true scale of the problem.
...We could cut sentences for violent crimes by half in most instances without significantly undermining deterrence or increasing the threat of repeat offending. Studies have found that longer sentences do not have appreciably greater deterrent effects; many serious crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol or drugs, who are not necessarily thinking of the consequences of their actions, and certainly are not affected by the difference between a 15-year and a 30-year sentence.
For the same conduct, we impose sentences on average twice as long as those the British impose, four times longer than the Dutch, and five to 10 times longer than the French. One of every nine people in prison in the United States is serving a life sentence. And some states have also radically restricted parole at the back end. As a result, many inmates are held long past the time they might pose any threat to public safety.