The Brennan Center for Justice has released a report on “How Many American Are Unnecessarily Incarcerated?” Based on 3 years of research by criminologists, criminal justice lawyers, and statisticians, covering the the convictions and sentences of the nationwide prison population (1.46 million prisoners serving time for 370 different crime categories), the report concludes that 39% are currently incarcerated without a sufficient public safety rationale. The report suggests that alternatives to incarceration are more effective penalties for many lower-level crimes, and proposes that prison sentences can safely be shortened for a number of more serious crimes.
- Those persons incarcerated with little public safety rationale could be more appropriately sentenced to an alternative to prison or a shorter prison stay. If these prisoners were released, it would result in cost savings of nearly $20 billion per year, and almost $200 billion over 10 years. Treatment, community service, or probation are demonstrably more effective for rehabilitate and reducing recidivism.
- Change sentencing laws to mandate alternatives to prison as the default sentences for certain lower-level crimes. These include drug possession, lesser burglary, minor drug trafficking, minor fraud or forgery, minor theft, and simple assault — offenses that now account for 25 percent of the prison population. Alternative sanctions — such as community service, electronic monitoring, probation, restitution, or treatment — should be the default for such crimes instead.
- Reduce the current minimums and maximums prison stays set by laws, or guidelines. These ranges should be proportional to the crimes committed, with judges retaining discretion to depart when appropriate.
- Current inmates should be permitted to petition judges for retroactive application of the two reforms above, on a case-by-case basis. This would allow for safe release of prisoners whose sentences no longer serve a justifiable public safety purpose.