Report provides road map to cap prison sentences at 20 years

The Sentencing Project recently released a new report, "Counting Down: Paths to a 20-Year Maximum Prison Sentence," which examines opportunities to address the country's high rates of incarceration and excessive sentences. 

The report recommends seven legislative reforms to right-size prison sentences.

“To end mass incarceration, the U.S. must dramatically shorten sentences,” said Liz Komar, Sentencing Reform Counsel at The Sentencing Project, and a co-author of the report. 

“Lawmakers can do this by capping sentences for the most serious offenses at 20 years and shifting sentences for all other offenses proportionately downward, including by decriminalizing some acts.” 

According to the report, countries like Germany and Norway illustrate that sentences can be far shorter without sacrificing public safety. Criminological evidence shows that unduly long sentences are unnecessary because people age out of crime, and the general threat of long-term imprisonment is an ineffective deterrent. 

The report explains seven recommended legislative reforms to bring about a 20-year cap on sentences and steps that can be taken now to start shrinking sentences and, ultimately, the total prison population.

“In large part due to long prison sentences, we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the world ,” said Ashley Nellis, Ph.D., Co-Director of Research at The Sentencing Project, and a co-author of the report.

 “The destabilizing force of mass incarceration deepens social and economic inequity, while entrenching cycles of harm, trauma, and disinvestment. Mass incarceration also consumes funds that could instead support investments in the types of interventions that empower communities and create lasting safety.” 

The seven recommended legislative reforms are: 

• Abolish death and life without parole sentences, and limit maximum sentences to 20 years

• Limit murder statutes to intentional killings, excluding offenses such as felony murder, and reduce homicide penalties

• Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and reform sentencing guidelines to ensure that judges can use their discretion to consider mitigating circumstances

• Provide universal access to parole and ensure timely review

• Eliminate consecutive sentences and limit sentence enhancements, including repealing “truth-in-sentencing” and “habitual offender” laws

• Create an opportunity for judicial “second look” resentencing within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, regardless of an individual’s offense

• Shift all sentences downward, including by de-felonizing many offenses and decriminalizing many misdemeanors.

Along with Komar and Nellis, Kristen M. Budd, Ph.D., Research Analyst for The Sentencing Project, co-authored the report.

The Sentencing Project promotes effective and humane responses to crime that minimize imprisonment and criminalization of youth and adults by promoting racial, ethnic, economic, and gender justice.