Mass Incarceration: Prisoners of Time

Alcatraz window by karyn christner

By Ted Gest via The Crime Report
Photo by Karyn Christner

Despite the enactment of justice reforms in many states, the nation’s prison and jail population has dropped only slightly in recent years. Well over two million people remain behind bars, and there has been little dent in the “mass incarceration” that that has been criticized by many on both the left and the right.

A new report from the Urban Institute tells much of the reason why: Prisoners sentenced to long terms under laws passed in previous decades still are locked up, and there is little hope for many of them to get out soon.

The key phrase used by those who follow the criminal justice system is “length of stay,” or the amount of time that a convicted person ends up spending in prison despite the stated sentence.

In “A Matter of Time: The Causes and Consequences of Rising Time Served in America’s Prisons,” the institute said that “more people have been going to prison and staying there longer, mostly because of “tough-on-crime” policies that swept the country in the 1980s and ’90s. The prison population boomed as sentences got longer and release policies got more restrictive.”

In the past, many convicts were released by parole boards or by other policies well before the maximum time they could have served. Reacting to criticism of these so-called early releases, many states enacted laws requiring all prisoners to stay through at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Urban Institute report found that the average length of stay has grown in every state since 2000. In almost half of states, the top 10 percent of prison terms increased in length by more than 5 years between 2000 and 2014.

States that have data going back further reported numbers that the institute called even more dramatic. In Michigan, the average time served among the 10 percent longest- serving prisoners was 10 years in 1989 and 26 years in 2013. In California, it was 9.7 years in 1992 and 24.9 years in 2014.

The report took a look at “stark racial disparities” that it said grow as people serve longer terms in prison, judging from figures in the 35 of 44 states with complete data. In Pennsylvania, black people make up 49 percent of the state prison population but 60 percent of those serving long prison terms.

One in five people in prison for 10 years or more is a black man who was incarcerated before age 25.

In fact, nearly 40 percent of those serving the longest prison terms went to prison before 25, despite research showing that brain development is not complete at younger ages.

Advocacy groups in recent years have touted reforms states have adopted to reduce their prison populations. Yet those changes have focused mainly on low-level crimes. Some new laws have reduced prison time for minor offenses, but the “the narrow focus of these reforms has intentionally excluded those who stay in prison the longest,” says the new report. “These changes have an outsized effect on the prison population, because people convicted of violent offenses make up more than half the people in state prisons and the majority of people with long prison terms.”

One effect of the longer terms is that states are spending millions of dollars caring for an aging prison population although many inmates could be safely released, the institute says. Also, people serving long terms leave their families behind, a problem confronted disproportionately by minorities. Many who finally are released are unprepared to live in a different world, and recidivism rates are high.

To get a realistic view of the impact of long terms, authors of the study interviewed several people who have served long terms.

One of them was Stanley Mitchell, who spent 35 years in a Maryland prison. Sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, he was released in 2013 at 63. “Does prison, long-term incarceration, change people?,” he said. “Sure it does. Does it change them for the better? Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. More times than not, it doesn’t. It makes a person more bitter, more hateful, especially when…the rules are not applied fairly.”

Another ex-inmate, Elvin Garcia, said, “I’ve seen individuals do long sentences…[and] by the time they’re released, both parents died. They have no immediate family left. No one.”

Advocates of the tough-on-crime policies that resulted in today’s long sentences argued that they would improve public safety and bring healing to crime victims. Jeff Sessions, President Trump’s Attorney General, is a proponent of longer prison terms.

The institute’s report argues that “decades of experience have revealed long prison terms to be a weak antidote to the problems that cause violence and a painfully inadequate answer to victims’ calls for resolution and healing.”

The report notes that long-term inmates often are among the last in line to get educational programming behind the walls and may have little incentive to take part if they don’t see release coming any time soon.

The institute suggested a series of principles for reform, including that sentences should be proportionate to the offense and the circumstances surrounding it, that punishments should be no more severe than necessary, that victims be offered a variety of ways to support justice, that everyone deserves a meaningful chance of release, and that “reforms must seek to dismantle systemic disparities” along racial and ethnic lines.

A series of specific recommendations to implement changes includes: assessing candidates for parole based on who they are now, not on their original offense; and establishing a standard of “presumptive parole,” releasing prisoners when they are first eligible “unless there is clear evidence that their release poses a significant threat to public safety.”

Several reform advocates have proposed significant shortening of prison terms. For example, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project maintains that most prison terms should be no longer than 20 years. And a group called “#cut50” contends that “we can smartly and safely reduce the number of people in our prisons and jails by 50 percent and keep communities safe while doing it.”

No states have enacted such a plan, and most have not even seriously considered it.

In Louisiana, the state with one of the world’s highest incarceration rates, the legislature approved changes this year that would reduce penalties for low-level offenders, but elected sheriffs and district attorneys blocked more sweeping bills that would have affected violent criminals.

The Urban Institute’s report aims at convincing policymakers to “dismantle the disastrous policies that have inflicted so much damage while doing little to address the real problems of crime.”

The report was funded by the Open Society Foundations, which did not determine the research findings. The authors are Leigh Courtney, Sarah Eppler-Epstein, Elizabeth Pelletier, Ryan King, and Serena Lei.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau chief of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.