In the stories of people who have been incarcerated for much of their lives, the personal costs of long-term incarceration for themselves and their families are palpable. Communities have been fundamentally altered as more of their men and women have vanished into prisons for years, sometimes forever. States have channeled billions of dollars into their correctional systems for decades, with the growth in spending often outpacing other priorities like education.
At this high price, has our prison system delivered on its promises? As mass incarceration gained momentum, proponents of tough-on-crime policies argued that harsher punishments would ensure public safety and bring healing to victims of crime, particularly violent crimes. Today, that argument is echoed in our attorney general’s call for tougher prosecutions and longer sentences.
“The promise that I would be somehow healed from that didn’t happen, and I kind of spiraled out of control emotionally. I was just a wreck because I was supposed to feel better once he was on death row, and it just didn’t happen that way,” Wilson said. “What I was told about being healed and feeling better and all of these things—it didn’t work. It was a lie.”
For four and a half years, she struggled, searching for the healing that the conviction didn’t bring. She chased any diversion that would make her feel better, she said, until she hit a brick wall. Through meditation and Buddhist practice, she found a sense of peace and compassion that led her to forgive the man who killed her husband and rethink her stance on the death penalty.
Although she once believed that people in prison were just bad people, perhaps irredeemably so, Wilson said her perspective was radically transformed after she visited a women’s prison in Chowchilla, California, through an Insight Prison Project program.
“It was two of the most intensive, heartbreaking, healing, tear-filled days that I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Wilson said. “When I went in there, I was just sitting with women—with women from all walks of life, all different races, all different backgrounds, levels of income, levels of education. Just women that reminded me of family members, of friends.
“That whole mental construct that I had around who was incarcerated began to crumble. As I listened to their story, I thought, ‘Well, that could’ve been me.’”
Wilson is careful to say that her story is not a prescription for healing, nor is it universal for all crime survivors. People harmed by serious crimes have diverse needs, yet we typically offer them a single, one-size-fits-all solution: a long prison sentence for the person who committed the harm with very few opportunities for that person to work toward personal transformation. But not all survivors crave retribution immediately after suffering trauma, and victims’ feelings may change over time, as Wilson’s did. By then, they may not be able to change that outcome.
Some survivors may demand long sentences for those who have harmed them mainly because no alternatives are available. With no other way to seek justice, they know that the person who committed the crime will receive either a long prison sentence or nothing at all.
Most important, our current system doesn’t ask victims what would serve them best. It fails to seek their input in a meaningful way, instead presuming that harsher punishments will mean more complete healing. But when asked, many people who have experienced the most serious crimes express a desire for restorative measures that might help them heal and prevent the violence they suffered from happening again. A 2016 survey showed that 61 percent of crime survivors are in favor of shorter prison sentences and increased investment in crime prevention and rehabilitation.
Proponents of tough sanctions often frame long prison terms as the only way to hold people accountable for committing serious crimes. But those who have personal experience with the prison system—formerly incarcerated people, crime survivors, and criminal justice professionals—are often quick to point out that punishment and accountability are not one and the same.
No one should mistake being incarcerated with being accountable. Those are two different things. When you’re incarcerated, you’ve just lost your freedom. That does not mean in any way, shape, or form that you have taken responsibility for your crime. That is an internal process.
Accountability requires people to accept responsibility for their actions and commit to never causing that harm again. Yet many people in prison never understand or accept the full scope of the harm they have caused others because they are emotionally and physically separated from it. Few are given the opportunity to speak directly to the survivors of their crimes; in fact, this contact is often expressly prohibited. Our courts and prisons discourage people from discussing their crimes openly, so many spend years in prison without even talking about what they have done. Without reflection, they may never truly understand and accept their culpability, much less how they might begin to make amends.
Some assume that long prison terms encourage people to face their past, build skills, and achieve the personal awareness they need to transform themselves. But ample evidence suggests that longer prison terms are often inadequate or even counterproductive in motivating people to make positive change.
When people think they will be in prison for decades no matter what they do, they may be less motivated to take part in programming that might help them reenter society. In this sense, shorter prison terms can be a more powerful crime reduction strategy than long ones. By offering opportunities for earlier release, correctional systems can encourage people to undertake the hard work of self-improvement and leave prison more skilled and empowered to lead productive lives.
When you realize how hard the struggle is, there’s just no silver bullet. People are making up for a lot of lost years. They’re working their way through a lot of trauma, and they’re usually dealing with substance abuse or mental health issues—not always, but usually. Those things are not things that just vanish.
Communities that experience the most violence are often those with the highest rates of incarceration. People in these communities live with the damage that high incarceration rates can have on families and neighborhoods, and they see how prison fails to ensure community safety. It is often these communities that voice the strongest opposition to long-term incarceration and demand alternative ways of holding people accountable.
People in communities where we have enacted our experiment of mass incarceration witness the failure of incarceration to deliver on the promise of safety every single day. …They have been promised a level of safety and a level of peace that would come out of our unprecedented investment in locking people up, and it has not delivered on that promise.
An enormous percentage of people who are in prison for violent crimes were victims and never got any kind of treatment or support. That doesn’t give them a license to kill, but it also doesn’t give us a license to have it turn out that the day you become a perpetrator, you cease being a victim. …They had never ever received any kind of support or treatment. All that stuff we say that victims should get, they never got.
Still, prisons are rarely equipped to assist people who have experienced trauma, and the prison environment itself often compounds this trauma and interferes with recovery.
Although many assume that long prison terms help deter crime, extensive evidence shows that the severity of punishment is not the key to changing people’s behavior. Long-term incarceration only punishes past actions, it does not prevent new harm, and communities devastated by violence deserve solutions that truly work.
Policymakers on both sides of the aisle recognize that mass incarceration is a growing, costly, and dangerous problem. But we can’t reverse mass incarceration without scaling back long prison terms, which will mean taking on the hard work of changing how we respond to violence and how we treat those who commit serious crimes.
For example, Alabama offers evidence that simply sending fewer people to prison or cutting time served for less serious offenses may not be enough to end mass incarceration.
In recent years, the state has seen a decline in the number of people serving shorter prison terms. But while the share of its prison population serving shorter terms has dropped, the share serving long terms has steadily climbed. Even though fewer people are being admitted to Alabama prisons, the state’s prison population has stayed fairly flat because those serving long prison terms remain behind bars.
Reformers looking to meaningfully reduce prison populations must not stop at low-level offenses. They will need to address this “stacking effect” with more ambitious changes to bend the curve.
In addition, it is disproportionately expensive to house people serving long prison terms.
According to the most recent data available for each state, people in state prisons had spent a combined 5,898,950 years behind bars. People who had served the longest 10 percent of prison terms accounted for 42 percent of that time—2,471,085 years—requiring nearly half the resources spent so far on the incarcerated population.
And because people serving the longest prison terms tend to be older than the rest of the prison population, they likely incur additional costs for health care—a dimension our analysis does not capture.
Long-term incarceration fails to hold people accountable for their crimes, motivate them to make positive change, address victims’ needs, or even deter crime. We must develop more fair and effective responses to serious crime.
Addressing long-term incarceration means grappling with the fact that 9 in 10 people serving the longest prison terms were convicted of a violent offense. Policy conversations about justice reform often focus on nonviolent drug or property crimes, but most people convicted of nonviolent offenses leave prison after a few years. Those convicted of violent crimes remain serving longer sentences. Of people who entered prison in 2000 (in states that provided data), 84 percent of those still incarcerated 14 years later were there for a violent offense.
States have shown a growing commitment to invest in alternatives to incarceration for low-level crimes, like drug courts, mental health courts, and other problem-solving courts that address the underlying causes of crime. The juvenile justice system has also demonstrated remarkable success keeping many young people out of detention without compromising public safety. Yet there has been little investment in alternatives to incarceration for adults who commit serious offenses.
People with serious criminal histories are often ineligible to participate in alternative courts and restorative programs despite evidence that they work just as well, if not better, for people who have committed serious crimes. Instead, many states introducing sentencing reforms for low-level convictions have maintained or even raised their penalties for violent crimes. Since 2000, time served in prison has risen faster than average for those convicted of a violent crime and fastest for those convicted of homicide.
For the past 50 years, many lawmakers have asserted their commitment to curbing violence through increasingly harsh penalties on people who commit violent offenses. At the same time, they have failed to invest in strategies shown to proactively stop violence from occurring in the first place. Cities like Chicago that have soaring rates of violent crime continue to cut funding for proven violence prevention programs like CeaseFire. And programs that provide restorative and therapeutic services in prisons struggle to secure the funding they need to reach people serving the longest terms. Lawmakers should demonstrate their commitment to public safety by investing in prevention strategies that work, rather than doubling down on reactive, tough-on-crime solutions.
In seeking new solutions to the problems of violence and mass incarceration, we drew from the insights of people who have served long prison terms, survivors of violent crime, policy experts, and practitioners. We also considered the recommendations of the National Research Council and the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections. Our research and our conversations have led us to a set of core principles we believe should guide decisionmaking in the criminal justice system:
Guided by these principles, we recommend the following changes to policy and practice: