Should There be a 20 Year Cap on Most Federal Sentences?
Date:  04-01-2015

Marc Mauer explains why such a cap makes sense
Marc Mauer, the Executive Director of The Sentencing Project, recently addressed the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections and stated that federal sentences should have a 20 year cap, “except for exceptional circumstances.”

Mauer explained why excessive sentences are “counterproductive and… costly:”

  • Most offenders “age out” of crime. Research shows that after peaking in the mid-to-late teenage years, offending begins to decline as individuals are in their 20s and drops sharply as they reach their 30s and 40s. As a result, for each successive year of incarceration there are diminishing returns for crime control. As the National Research Council concluded, “Because recidivism rates decline markedly with age, lengthy prison sentences, unless they specifically target very high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders, are an inefficient approach to preventing crime by incapacitation.”

  • False promise of long sentences for public safety. Support for extremely long sentences, such as life and life without parole, is premised in part on the assumption that individuals receiving such sentences will reoffend if released. However, an analysis by The Sentencing Project found that individuals released from life sentences were less than one third as likely to be rearrested within three years compared to other formerly incarcerated individuals.

  • Caring for aging prisoners is extremely expensive. The cost of housing aging prisoners rises substantially, due in large part to increased healthcare costs. Because Medicaid and Medicare funds may not be used to provide treatment to prisoners, healthcare costs generally must be borne by correctional facilities.

  • Opportunity costs. Long sentences also incur opportunity costs, as they divert resources and attention from other public safety measures. For example, public funds spent on prisons are not available to invest in crime prevention initiatives such as early childhood education, therapeutic interventions for at-risk youth, and treatment for substance abuse and mental illness.

    Mauer made several recommendations, including:

  • Congress could act to reduce statutory penalties of greater than 20 years.

  • Congress could prohibit the practice of “stacking” such penalties to achieve sentences exceeding 20 years.

  • Congress could enact legislation prohibiting any federal sentence longer than 20 years unless a court has determined that the individual presents an undue risk to public safety.

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