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Prison sentences should be capped at 20 years


U.S. President Barack Obama recently issued sentence commutations for 22 people serving lengthy prison terms for drug offenses in the United States. Among them was Donel Marcus Clark, who received a 35-year prison term for a first-time conviction of selling large quantities of crack cocaine and marijuana in 1993 at the age of 29. Following mandatory sentencing guidelines in place at the time of his arrest, a judge sentenced Clark to a prison term far greater than the terms even for many persons convicted of violent offenses.

This case provides a window into understanding how the United States has produced a prison system that the National Research Council has deemed “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.” For a nation that prides itself on its democratic traditions, this is a dubious distinction. Furthermore, these developments have been a function of changes in policy, not crime rates. Essentially, the American zeal for punishment has resulted not only in more individuals being sentenced to prison, but also in keeping them there far longer than in comparable nations.

At the deep end, 160,000 people – one of every nine people in U.S. prisons – are now serving a life sentence, and many more are serving “virtual” life sentences of 50 years or more. Such developments are not only inhumane in their disregard for the possibility of individual reform, but are also counterproductive for public safety goals.

To give some perspective to these sentences, consider that in 2013, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in a UK case that whole-life sentences without the possibility of review violate human rights standards and must include a parole review provision. At the time of the ruling, there were 49 individuals serving such prison terms, compared to 49,000 serving life without parole in the United States.

In order to achieve a more appropriate balance in approaches to public safety, policymakers in the United States and elsewhere should consider a proposal to limit the maximum term of imprisonment to 20 years, except in unusual circumstances. Such a policy would enhance public safety goals by freeing up resources for more effective interventions.

The primary problem with decades-long sentences is that they produce diminishing returns for public safety. The key reason for this is that offenders generally “age out” of crime. The risk of involvement in criminal activity rises in the late teenage years through the early 20s, but then declines sharply as individuals mature. By the time adults reach their 30s or 40s, their likelihood of committing a crime is just a fraction of what it was a decade or two previously.

Thus, while prison may provide some incapacitating effect for younger offenders, each successive year in prison produces a declining impact. In the United States, for example, persons released from life prison sentences – generally in their 40s and 50s – have rearrest rates lower than one-third of all prison releases.

Decades-long imprisonment is also extremely costly. As people age in prison, health-care costs rise sharply. With the dramatic increase in the number of older people in U.S. prisons, states are now moving to establish “geriatric prisons,” replete with wheelchairs and other necessities for an aging population that poses little risk of ongoing criminal conduct.

Counterproductive prison terms also divert resources from more effective means of addressing crime. Public funds spent on prisons are not available to invest in early childhood education, therapeutic interventions for at-risk youth, and substance-abuse treatment, all of which can produce better outcomes in crime control.

Some would argue that certain individuals pose such a threat to public safety that they require prison terms of more than 20 years. For such cases, governments can establish a review process at the end of a 20-year term to determine whether an individual still poses a significant risk. If they determine that the person does, confinement in a prison setting or mental hospital, as appropriate, could be continued for a specified period.

This is the practice in Norway, which limits prison terms to no more than 21 years. The Norwegian justice system applied this policy to Anders Breivik, for instance, the far-right terrorist who brutally killed 77 people in 2011. Note that even if Breivik is released after 21 years, Donel Clark will still have served more time (26 years) for his drug conviction.

Other sentencing regimes apply similar provisions. Belgian law requires a parole review of life sentences after 10 years, Germany after 15 years, and the International Criminal Court at 25 years. In addition, the Vatican recently abolished life sentences from its criminal code, with Pope Francis referring to such penalties as “a hidden death sentence.”

While punishment has long been considered a goal of sentencing policy, in nations like the United States it has come to overwhelm goals such as rehabilitation, prevention, and fairness. By placing an upper limit on the severity of sentencing, we could move public policy in the direction of enhancing public safety in a manner that focuses more on constructive interventions than on imposing vengeance. Surely a humane society should want to move in that direction.

© The Mark News

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

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In principle I agree with reduced sentences, but there will always be a Dzhokhar Tsarnaev or Ariel Castro in need of the harshest sentence that can be applied with good conscience. I always say that if the victim's family want to dispose of this rubbish, they should have that option.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

America is not Europe, and what works (or may work) in Europe is not necessarily going to work in America. Certain rights and freedoms in America contribute to violence and crime, guns are everywhere, and the police may not hold any suspected person for more than 72 hours without formerly charging them with a crime. America is also a large country, where people can easily move around, without having to show identification. Police are not allowed to stop anyone for questioning unless they have committed some kind of offence. With many freedoms comes the risk of these freedoms being abused.

In addition to this, even today, America does not watch it's long borders very carefully, and large numbers of immigrants, many of them criminals, cross freely. In Los Angeles, 90% of arrest warrants for murder are issued to illegal immigrants, and the local, state, and federal prison systems are heavily populated with criminal immigrants. Were these illegal immigrants not in the system, the number of people incarcerated in America would be substantially less. 27% of the prisoners in the federal prison system are illegal aliens, 15% to 25% of prisoners in county and state prisons are illegal immigrants.

In the past, we have seen many stories of criminals released from prison who commit crimes almost immediately, some within hours of their release. Unfortunately, the penal system in America and other countries fails to rehabilitate criminals, they are simply put into cages with other criminals, and are often more dangerous when released than they were when they were put into prison. But the laws don't allow much in the way of alternative punishments.

-2 ( +6 / -8 )

Why do prison exist? It is not (contrary to popular belief) for punishment, because punishment doesn't stop negative behaviour. Prisons exist to rehabilitate.

If someone cannot be rehabilitated into a safe and functioning member of society in 20 years (I'd actually say that 10 years is more reasonable) then the problem is either an individual who can never be rehabilitated or a system that is not even trying.

I'd say that in the U.S. the vast majority of cases are that the system isn't even trying to rehabilitate.

But what to do with people who will never be safe to release into society, like serial killers, serial rapists, etc? The correct answer is what the Greeks decided to do more than 3000 years ago, offer them a choice, either exile or death.

2 ( +5 / -3 )


As usual, you always hit the nail on the head.

0 ( +3 / -3 )

In Los Angeles, 90% of arrest warrants for murder are issued to illegal immigrants, and the local, state, and federal prison systems are heavily populated with criminal immigrants.

Oh, so true! - except for the complete lack of veracity. Note that while the foreign-born percentage of the American population is rising, the crime rate (particularly violent crime) is plummeting. One report notes:

A June 2008 report from the Public Policy Institute of California found that foreign-born adults in California have lower incarceration rates than their native-born counterparts. Based on data from 2005, the report found that “the incarceration rate for foreign-born adults is 297 per 100,000 in the population, compared to 813 per 100,000 for U.S.-born adults. The foreign-born, who make up roughly 35% of California’s adult population, constitute 17% of the state prison population, a proportion that has remained fairly constant since 1990.”


2 ( +3 / -1 )

The US criminal justice system is a disgrace.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

@Wakarimasen And I suppose you think the Japanese system is better where a prosecutor wouldn't know how to present a proper case if evidence fell out of the sky rather than a confession.

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This case provides a window into understanding how the United States has produced a prison system that the National Research Council has deemed “historically unprecedented and internationally unique.”

Must be the gentlest way possible to describe the undisputed prison capital of planet Earth, the United States of A jail-a-thon.

Freedom? The state tells you what drugs you can put into your own body and then jails for you for longer than anybody if you disobey. Yeah. That's some freedom you go there! The freedom to three squares a day and a cot, basketball twice a weak, and the freedom to have a death grip on your bar soap.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Oh, so true! - except for the complete lack of veracity. Note that while the foreign-born percentage of the American population is rising, the crime rate (particularly violent crime) is plummeting. One report notes:

Your reports you linked are incredibly flimsy. What exactly does "foreign born" mean? There are hundreds of thousands of legal Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese immigrants living in these states, not to mention "foreign born" legal immigrants from all other countries in the world. Your reports fail to distinguish between those which are in America legally or illegally.

Fully 27% of inmates in federal prison are illegal immigrants, this figure is published by the DOJ. Yet, only illegal immigrants make up only 2% of the population of America. How do these facts agree with the information in your link?

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

I don't believe that someone who murders another person should be released from jail after just 20 years: 50 years would be more appropriate. However, 35 years for selling drugs is ridiculous. I'm surprised Americans aren't up in arms about this waste of their taxes.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Actually, the US prison punishment is fairly reasonable and in line with the concept of unalienable rights the US is founded on. The article mistakenly tries to imply because 160k criminals are lifers that somehow this means all prison sentences are this extreme and is an affront to the concept of unalienable rights of life and liberty.

The reality is the vast majority if not all criminals who are life prisoners are there because they committed heinous crimes, generally rape, murder, attempted murder, extreme child abuse, sex trafficking, human trafficking, bringing about situations which cause death like arson, or running a criminal gang which murders people.

The vast majority of crimes which get you life in prison are crimes where the criminal has deprived the unalienable rights of someone else, permanently, like a rape or murder does and therefore the criminal has in effect forfeited his own claims to any rights the moment he deprives someone else of theirs.

While it could be argued certain crimes should not be on the list, like "treason" this has to be tempered with the effect. "Treason" which resulted in people being killed or murdered, could be argued for life, where as "treason" which did not result in permanent deprivation of rights to someone else, such as releasing papers but no effect happens, this probably should not be life imprisonment and probably is not.

The reality is more of a saying, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. In the end, these people who are life prisoners committed a crime and if they did not want to be life prisoners, they could have chosen to NOT rape the girl next door or sell some woman into sex slavery or murder a guy because he looked at you.

Now if the discussion is about various crimes and lesser sentences, there could be a discussion here because this is getting prolific and it seems the US government has millions of laws on the books arranged in such a way as to ensure every person is committing some sort of infraction. Another issue is crimes like murder or anything that doesn't involve government, these crimes appear to be handled within the concept of innocent until proven guilty. However, if the "crime" is actually an infraction against a government regulation, such as not paying a tax or some environmental violation, well the government has managed to change it to , guilt by accusation, good luck proving your innocence. And if a government official or government employee is committing the crime, well somehow they are never guilty.

Still the American system is based on the concept of avoiding the innocent being jailed, even to the point of murders getting away with it over technicalities. People complain but the reality is the Founders of america felt it was a bigger injustice to cause an innocent man to be jailed in the name of making sure any and all criminals are found. To them, better a guilty man end up free, than an innocent jailed. Since for the most part this concept holds, chances are most people in american jails are guilty. WHile the country should always recheck and recheck and confirm and investigate to ensure this, the end result is the jailed are guilty and the ones in jail for life likely did something that deserves life imprisonment. The justice system and punishment are there to ensure the innocent remain free, the guilty face punishment and the punishment fits the crime. It is not there to rehabilitate or save anyone or look into people's childhoods or try to "prevent" crimes.

Commit a crime, you serve your punishment and if you want to avoid prison punishment, don't commit crimes.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Still the American system is based on the concept of avoiding the innocent being jailed

Thanks for the laugh.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

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