NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

More Prisoners, Less Crime

May 13, 2004

The nation's violent crime rate has declined, yet the prison population has grown, says USA Today. Mandatory sentencing, which grew in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a way to get tough on crime, is the reason:

  • Approximately 1.36 million people are currently in federal and state prisons, up from 850,622 in 1992.
  • Currently, 127,677 people are serving life sentences in federal and state prisons, an increase of 83 percent since 1992; one in four prisoners sentenced to life has no possibility of parole.
  • It costs approximately $1 million to house a prisoner sentenced to life in prison.

However, some judges and defense attorneys are calling for less stringent sentencing guidelines and more discretion. Even Supreme Court justice William Rehnquist protested a 2003 law passed by Congress requiring federal judges to abide by sentencing guidelines.

Jack King of the National Criminal Defense Lawyers Association in Washington, D.C., claims that the mandatory sentencing guidelines give the job of meting out justice to legislatures and not courts, where it belongs. He argues that such guidelines do not take into consideration individual mitigating circumstances of each crime.

However, John Nowacki of the Justice Department cites mandatory sentencing as the reason for the current 30-year low in crime.

Currently, the federal government and six states do not offer parole to prisoners sentenced to life.

Source: Donna Leinwand, "Study Cites Sentencing Laws for Rise in Prison Life Terms," USA Today, May 12, 2004 and Mark Mauer, Ryan S. King and Malcolm C. Young, "The Meaning of Life: Long Prison Sentences in Context," The Sentencing Project, May 2004.

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