Report: More than half of U.S. prisoners are serving sentences 10 years or longer

WASHINGTON — More than half of prisoners in the U.S. are serving 10-year sentences or longer, according to a new report released by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for criminal justice reform.

According to the findings, as of 2019, around 56 percent of prisoners nationwide were serving sentences of 10 years or longer.

That is up from 2000 when 10-year or longer sentences accounted for 44 percent of the prison population.

“That’s a big growth compared to if you look at the year 2000,” said Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a senior research analyst at the Sentencing Project. “When we invest a lot of our public resources into very long sentences, we’re not doing the more important things that we know are more effective at preventing crime in the first place.”

The organization argues the report shows a need to give more prisoners a chance to have their lengthy sentences reevaluated.

“All jurisdictions should create an automatic judicial sentence-review process within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, with a rebuttable presumption of resentencing,” the report said. “For those already sentenced, retroactive application of sentencing reforms, increased discretionary release, and second look reforms enabling a sentence review, in addition to executive clemency, are important tools for correcting sentencing excesses of the past.”

“People who commit crime generally age out of criminal offending as they get older,” said Ghandnoosh. “They’re less likely to break the laws. They’re less likely to recidivate when they’ve served longer sentences.”

The report also shows longer sentences disproportionately impact Black Americans in prison.

“While Black Americans are vastly overrepresented in the prison population, this disparity widens among those serving lengthy sentences,” the report said. “In 2019, Black Americans represented 14% of the total U.S. population, 33% of the total prison population, and 46% of the prison population who had already served at least ten years.”

The report comes as there has been a national debate about how to tackle the rise in crime in cities across the country.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) said: “The MCCA has advocated for a risk-based approach that would require an offender to undergo an individualized risk assessment that incorporates the totality of their criminal history, the public safety threat posed, proclivity to re-offend, and risk of flight. The MCCA is not opposed to compassionate release when appropriate and after a thorough assessment. Public safety decisions should not be political. Rather, they need to be transparent and based on science and evidence.”

In Memphis, the city’s mayor criticized the judicial system this week after a suspect allegedly killed four people in a shooting spree.

“The problem is this judicial system that will not punish,” said Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. “That is our problem.”

“We absolutely have a shared goal of advancing public safety,” said Ghandnoosh. “Incarcerating people for very lengthy periods of time is not going to get us to achieving the levels of public safety that we would like to achieve… We need to invest in communities, create economic stability for people.”