There is “little public safety rationale” behind the imprisonment of 39 percent (576,000) of U.S. inmates, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

“Many of the laws and policies that increased time served are not based on evidence showing that longer stays behind bars enhanced public safety,” the report explained. “Instead, they are the result of decades of severe sentencing laws, guidelines and practices premised on a collective ‘guess’ that more punishment and more prison would reduce crime.”

Several decades of research is cited in support of the claim that “little public safety rationale” lies behind current sentencing practices.

These studies demonstrate “that longer sentences do not reduce recidivism more than shorter sentences” and “that the longer one stays in prison, the more likely he or she is to reoffend upon release.”

Imprisonment can increase the likelihood of future crime, the report explained, particularly with lower-level offenders.

This is due to “the ‘crimonogenic’ effect of prison” – being surrounded by persons who committed more serious crimes, lacking rehabilitative services and being cut off from support networks.

Upon release, returning citizens “often have trouble finding employment and reintegrating into society, often leading them to turn to crime.”

The U.S. imprisonment rate increased from 102 inmates per 100,000 in 1974 to a height of 506 per 100,000 in 2007 and then dropped to 471 per 100,000 today.

Calling the decline “welcome,” the center emphasized that “at this pace, it would take nearly 75 years to return to the 1985 incarceration rate of 200 per 100,000.”

To more effectively and quickly reduce the U.S. imprisonment rate while still protecting public safety, the report offered several broad reform proposals:

  1. Make sentencing proportional to the crime based on research not conjecture.
  2. Mandate alternatives to incarceration for lower-level crimes.
  3. Mandate shorter sentences for crimes requiring incarceration.
  4. Allow for broader judicial discretion to sentence based on special circumstances.

The full report is available here.

Editor’s note: “Through the Door,”’s documentary on how the faith community is positively impacting the criminal justice system, explores leading issues driving high imprisonment rates and alternatives to incarceration. Additional details about the film are available here.

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