The Long and the Short of Prison Sentences


New York Times legal writer Adam Liptak digs a little deeper into the story of America's astonishingly high incarceration rate and finds that the main explanation is longer sentences, as opposed to more frequent sentences or a higher crime rate:

People who commit nonviolent crimes in the rest of the world are less likely to receive prison time and certainly less likely to receive long sentences. The United States is, for instance, the only advanced country that incarcerates people for minor property crimes like passing bad checks…

Efforts to combat illegal drugs play a major role in explaining long prison sentences in the United States as well. In 1980, there were about 40,000 people in American jails and prisons for drug crimes. These days, there are almost 500,000.

Those figures have drawn contempt from European critics. "The U.S. pursues the war on drugs with an ignorant fanaticism," said [prison researcher Vivien] Stern of King's College….

It is the length of sentences that truly distinguishes American prison policy. Indeed, the mere number of sentences imposed here would not place the United States at the top of the incarceration lists. If lists were compiled based on annual admissions to prison per capita, several European countries would outpace the United States. But American prison stays are much longer, so the total incarceration rate is higher.

Burglars in the United States serve an average of 16 months in prison, according to Mr. Mauer, compared with 5 months in Canada and 7 months in England.

The longer U.S. sentences are due largely to legislators who pass mandatory minimum statutes and judges (frequently elected) who err on the side of severity. Both groups are responding to a perceived public demand for tough-on-crime policies.

While any sentence for nonpredatory "criminals" such as drug offenders is too long, it's less clear whether U.S. penalties for crimes such as burglary and robbery are excessive. As Liptak notes, "there is little question that the high incarceration rate here has helped drive down crime," whether through incapacitation, deterrence, or both. Liptak quotes former federal judge Paul G. Cassell, a conspicuous critic of draconian drug sentences, who writes that "a good case can be made that fewer Americans are now being victimized" as a result of harsher sentences. Cassell says the evidence "should give one pause before too quickly concluding that European sentences are appropriate."

In a column last month, I discussed the Pew Center's recent report on incarceration rates, upon which Liptak draws heavily. Several years ago in reason, I noted criminologist John DiIulio's acknowledgment that the cost-effectiveness of incarceration depends on the system's ability to distinguish between predatory criminals and "drug-only" offenders.