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Even for violent crimes, longer is not always better

If California hopes to fix its correctional crisis, it needs to broaden its outlook on sentencing reform to address not only low-level offenders, but also those who have committed serious and violent crimes. In my last post, I wrote that such offenders are spending more and more time behind bars, and that much of this increased time is due to harsh sentence enhancements like "Three Strikes and You're Out" and 10-20-Life -- "Use a Gun and You're Done." These enhancements come at a huge cost to society, but do little to protect the public.

Under 10-20-Life, people convicted of serious felonies will serve an extra 10 years if they brandished a gun during the crime, 20 years if they fired it, and 25-to-Life if firing the gun resulted in serious injury or death. Gun enhancements are appealing alternatives to gun control because they purportedly target only the "bad guys" who use guns -- not the "good guys" who merely shoot guns for healthy fun and games. Extremely harsh enhancements are thought to enhance public safety by: 1) deterring people from committing crimes with guns, which are much more likely to result in serious injury or death, and 2) incapacitating criminals who use guns.

But this logic is simply not supported by evidence. Research shows that the deterrent effect of punishment is linked to the certainty, not the severity, of punishment. Incapacitation is less theoretical -- the offender is not likely to commit additional crimes while incarcerated -- but the number of crimes prevented by confining such a diverse group of people is difficult to estimate. Incapacitation also offers diminishing returns as the prisoner ages, as criminal behavior rises throughout the teenage years, peaks in the mid-20s, and then drops precipitously after 30. Recidivism rates also drop steadily throughout life.

Moreover, a report by the National Research Council found no clear evidence that gun enhancements affect gun-related crimes, and concluded that those that had found any crime reductions were "difficult to interpret." Other studies have come to similar conclusions.

For the offender, longer is certainly not better: As the years go by, inmates often become more distant from their families and communities, less employable, and more deeply ingrained in prison culture (becoming "institutionalized"), all factors that hamper reentry.

Though the public is not likely to see less crime due to 10-20-Life, they are footing what is likely to be an enormous bill as the enhancements keep offenders confined well into old age. California already spends more than $50,000 per year to house each inmate, and that figure doubles for inmates aged 50 and older. A 2003 estimate (which assumed inmates would cost a modest $35,000 per year) predicted that by 2025 the CDCR would pay at least $4 billion per year for elderly inmates alone. That's money that could be better spent on rehabilitation, addiction treatment, and community-based programs, with a much greater payoff in public safety.

The striking irrationality of these laws demonstrates the need for a sentencing commission that can help California ground its sentencing laws in solid research. CJCJ is helping San Francisco lead the way, analyzing local sentencing practices to develop evidence-based reforms that can reduce recidivism, protect the public, and efficiently utilize the city's criminal justice resources. If the state does not follow suit, we will be stuck with unjustifiable and costly enhancements that result in, as criminologist Peter Greenwood writes, "thousands of defendants serving unusually long terms because somebody came up with a theory and a good bumper sticker title that captured the public's fancy."

~ Lizzie Buchen
CJCJ Communications and Policy

Keywords: deterrence

Posted in Blog, Sentencing

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