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LET’S TALK ABOUT IT | Let’s Get More Radical About Prison Reform

Illustrated by koya79/iStock, Wikimedia Commons

by Harry Ducrepin 

The American prison system is incredibly flawed and unjust, but this is something we all already know. When we talk about problems in the system, the same ideas pop up, notably the privatization of prisons, mass incarceration and lack of rehabilitation programs. While it’s great that we have acknowledged these issues, we should start to think beyond the scope of them and get a little more radical.

 Let’s talk about capping prison sentences at 20 years. I know this idea may sound radical, and even dangerous, but hear me out and you’ll see why it’s the best thing to do.

 We currently put more people behind bars than any other country does, but that doesn’t make us any safer. Other countries have lower conviction and crime rates, so how do we manage to have such high rates for both? The answer is our exceedingly high recidivism rates. These rates tell us how many incarcerated people reoffend after being released, which is more importantly a metric of how effective our prison system is at rehabilitating people in prison. And given that our recidivism rate, according to the DOJ, over 9 years is 83%, it’s safe to say that our prisons are not effective at all when it comes to rehabilitation.

 Our prisons are designed to maximize profit and punish incarcerated individuals for their crimes. And while prison is, to some degree, supposed to be punishment, it should also be about rehabilitation and reintegration into society. And as much as I’d love to talk about rehabilitation programs and investing in the future of those who are incarcerated that’s a topic I’ll explore another day.

 With that said, we can’t just stop at expanding rehabilitation programs, we also need to implement caps for prison sentences. Capping prison sentences is one approach to reversing our crippling mass incarceration, the seeds of which were planted by officials in the 1980s who introduced limited parole opportunities, mandatory sentence minimums and longer sentence lengths. Sentence caps could go a long way in reversing the effects of these oppressive policies. While these caps wouldn’t completely eliminate mass incarceration, it would result in tens of thousands of people being released from prison and preventing the same problem from plaguing future generations.

 Now, how exactly would a cap on prison sentences work? It’s actually pretty simple – just look at Norway’s system. Norway caps sentences at 21 years and has a clause that allows judges to assess individuals on a case-by-case basis to extend sentences by intervals of 5 years if the individual still poses a threat to society. Aside from that, Norway caps all crimes — including violent crimes, like murder — at 21 years. And no, this doesn’t make society any more dangerous. I know it may seem like releasing violent criminals back into society could be counterproductive, but in most cases it really isn’t. Norway has released murderers into society under this sentence cap program and they have lower violent crime rates than the U.S. Norway also has much lower recidivism rates, at 20 percent, which should highlight the merit of their system.

 With a 20-year cap, incarcerated people would outgrow their crimes in various different respects. On one level, these people would have plenty of time to repent for their crimes and engage in rehabilitation programs to ensure that they no longer pose a threat — and in another manner, incarcerated people would outgrow their crimes in the sense that as people get older, their likelihood of committing crimes drastically decreases. This is a phenomenon known as the age-crime curve that is widely accepted by criminal justice experts: the idea is that younger people are more likely to commit crimes, and as they age, the risk of committing crimes gradually decreases until it nearly disappears altogether in senior citizens depending on said crime. And since most people are young when they get convicted, they would be in their 40s and 50s upon release, when their chance of reoffending would be significantly lower.

Graph of Arrest Rates for Prison Reform Article

 https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/agecrimecurve.html

https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2018/crime-in-the-u.s.-2018/tables/table-38

To combat the cycle of mass incarceration, we need to think of more innovative and unique approaches. And while I know a policy like capping sentences won’t be established for a long time, or maybe ever, I still think it’s important to get it out there and start a conversation.

Harry Ducrepin can be reached at hmd59@cornell.edu. Featured illustration by koya79/iStock, Wikimedia Commons.

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