Long prison sentences are cruel and ineffective: here’s the proof

Experts call for end of mandatory minimums and overreliance on incarceration, shift toward evidence-backed, restorative sentences

The United States incarcerates nearly 2 million people, far more than any other country in the world. But the problem of mass incarceration in this country is not just a function of the number of people in prison—or the much larger number of people who cycle in and out of jails every year. Our system also incarcerates people for far too long, doling out excessively long sentences.

As of 2019, 57 percent of the prison population was serving sentences of 10 or more years. And as of 2020, one in seven people in U.S. prisons was serving a life sentence — more than the country’s entire incarcerated population in 1970.

Vera’s report, A New Paradigm for Sentencing in the United States, shows how we arrived at these dismal statistics and charts a path forward. We explain why our system can, and must, shift away from its current overreliance on incarceration and toward community-based sentences.

Concepts that have been central to sentencing theory, policy, and practice to date — such as retribution, deterrence, and excessive incapacitation — have been backed by paltry evidence of success, demonstrating, instead, more evidence of harm. States and the federal government have leaned on these principles to justify as much prison time as possible. But doing so has not been effective in delivering accountability and building public safety. Instead, this system has caused harm that has disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx communities.