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Why crime and punishment can be a bad match

Proponents of longer prison sentences argue they accomplish multiple objectives, including properly punishing a person who commits a crime, making it safer for the rest of society and serving as a deterrent to others who may commit similar crimes.

Never mind that long prison sentences are extremely costly to taxpayers and result in dangerously overcrowded prisons, the fact is research indicates long prison sentences are not an effective deterrent. Longer sentences also don't go far in terms of reducing recidivism. A 2009 study found that 67 percent of people who spent three years or more in a U.S. prison and were released were arrested for committing another offense. In the United Kingdom, almost 70 percent of people are reconvicted within one year of being released from prison.

There is growing concern that criminal behavior is learned and reinforced in prisons, and that longer sentences make it more difficult to successfully assimilate back into society upon release so that offenders can live productive lives and not return to crime. The longer the sentence, the greater the risk that an inmate may lose support of family and friends who could steer them to a prosocial lifestyle on release. Instead, many find themselves alone, unemployed, homeless and facing a world with technological advances that leave them unqualified to earn a living with prior skills.

Inmates who serve long sentences experience a "Rip Van Winkle" sensation upon release into a world with the Internet, smart phones, robotics and other advances never dreamed of decades earlier when they were last in society. The government provides minimal support to these people; a 10-minute monthly meeting with a parole agent to fill out a form does not suffice. So it is no wonder that some drift into circles of others similarly frustrated with society's obstacles to success.

Is 'Tougher' Necessarily Better?

Few argue that criminals should not be held accountable for their crimes. The question is how long of a prison sentence is long enough? With more than 2 million people imprisoned in the U.S., we lead the world in incarceration. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that 16 percent of that total, more than 300,000 people, have drug crimes as their most serious offense.

Violent crimes are the minority of all crimes, yet they are the image politicians project when proclaiming the need to "get tough on crime." A 2011 bipartisan study by the National Conference of State Legislatures recommended legislatures reevaluate their criminal codes to focus on policies designed not just to incarcerate, but to reduce recidivism. Suggestions included review and consideration of "whether policies of a different era should sunset or be modernized... and [allowance for] adaptations to the criminal code to reflect current needs, standards and values."

Actually, the criminal justice system doesn't have to be the only response mechanism to illegal behavior, particularly for non-violent drug and property crimes.

"Usually, there's an underlying addiction. We can address the addiction with a more evidence-based approach - one that deals with prevention and intervention and treatment, rather than a criminal justice system, which has [little] expertise on drug addiction at all. We can make a bigger impact," Ashley Nellis recently told the British Broadcasting Corporation. Nellis is a professor and senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based non-profit that pushes for criminal justice reform.

Punishment Can't Be the Overarching Objective

As I state in my book, "Illusion of Justice," harshly punitive or minimum sentencing laws often arise as part of an effort to solve social problems, and this approach simply doesn't work. Mandatory minimum sentences provide the prosecution with too much leverage in the plea-bargaining process; a defendant may not be guilty of the lesser crime offered, but he or she will accept a plea to avoid a worse outcome.

"We must never forget that criminal offenders are human beings capable of redemption. They are usually remorseful and willing to accept punishment, but they need a helping hand to put old habits and negative friends behind after they have been held accountable. "The defense of citizens accused of crimes, some of them very serious, is intertwined with my faith and with my belief that every human being matters. Life is sacred. We can't just throw out the bad or ignore the poor or the people who are disliked or the people who live on the wrong side of the tracks. Even in towns where the trains never run."

Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murderer and America's Broken System (Harper 2017).

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