Remodeling American Sentencing: A Blueprint for Moving Past Mass Incarceration

Source: Michael Tonry, University of Minnesota – Twin Cities – School of Law, Minnesota Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-26, May 17, 2014

From the abstract:
When and if the will to roll back mass incarceration and create just, fair, and effective sentencing systems becomes manifest, the way forward is clear:
-First, three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and comparable laws should be repealed.
-Second, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, or similar laws that are not repealed should be radically narrowed in scope and severity.
-Third, any three-strikes, mandatory minimum sentence, and similar laws that are not repealed should be changed to include provisions authorizing judges to impose some other sentence “in the interest of justice.”
-Fourth, LWOP laws should be repealed, or radically narrowed.
-Fifth, truth-in-sentencing laws should be repealed.
-Sixth, criminal codes should be amended to set substantially lower maximum sentences scaled to the seriousness of crimes.
-Seventh, every state should establish a sentencing commission and promulgate a presumptive sentencing guidelines system.
-Eighth, any state that does not establish an effective set of presumptive sentencing guidelines should establish a system of parole guidelines.
-Ninth, every state and the federal government should reduce its combined rate of jail and prison confinement to half its 2014 level by 2020.
-Tenth, every state should enact legislation making all prisoners serving fixed terms longer than five years, or indeterminate terms, eligible for consideration for release at the expiration of five years, and all prisoners aged 35 or over eligible for consideration for release after serving three years.

These proposals are evidence-based, and mostly technocratic. Those calling for prison population targets and reducing the lengths of sentences being served may appear bold to some. Relative to the problems they address they are modest and partial. Reducing rates of imprisonment by half in the United States, a country with comparatively low crime rates, to a level that will remain 3 to 3.5 times those of other developed Western countries, can hardly be seen as overly ambitious.