Who is the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition?

Our mission is to reverse the trend of mass incarceration in Colorado. We are a coalition of nearly 7,000 individual members and over 100 faith and community organizations who have united to stop perpetual prison expansion in Colorado through policy and sentence reform.

Our chief areas of interest include drug policy reform, women in prison, racial injustice, the impact of incarceration on children and families, the problems associated with re-entry and stopping the practice of using private prisons in our state.

If you would like to be involved please go to our website and become a member.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sentencing Project - Time in Prison

Here's an excerpt, but please read the entire thing.

The most recent Department of Justice analysis of these issues
documents that the mean time served in state prison before first release
rose from 22 months to 29 months from 1990 to 1999. While a seven month
increase may not strike some as dramatic, note that this represents
a 32 percent rise in average time served.
To provide some context for these trends, it is important to note
that time served in prison for many offenses is considerably greater
than in other industrialized nations. Individuals sentenced to prison
for burglary, for example, spent an average of 16.2 months in prison
in the United States, compared with 5.3 months in Canada and 6.8
months in England/Wales. For high-end drug crimes, a US conviction in
federal court for selling a kilogram of heroin yields a mandatory 10-year
sentence, compared with six months in prison in England.
From a public safety point of view, addressing the issue of time
served is quite significant for several reasons:
􀀗 Time served is a significant component of the rising prison population.
Looking at the state prison population of 1.2 million, we can calculate
what the scale of incarceration would be today if time served
had not increased since 1990. Given the 32 percent increase noted
above, this would have resulted in nearly 400,000 fewer prisoners
overall even absent any change in the number of people sentenced
to prison.
􀀗 Time served does not influence recidivism. One might speculate that
increasing time served in prison would have an effect on reducing
recidivism, either through individual deterrence or rehabilitation.
But the most comprehensive data on recidivism from the
Department of Justice demonstrate that while recidivism rates are
high—two-thirds of released prisoners are rearrested within three
years of release—there is no significant difference among people
spending anywhere from one to five years in prison. Only after five
years do recidivism rates begin to decline somewhat, but this is no
doubt due to the aging process and not to any inherent effect of
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incarceration. And lest anyone suggest that we could reduce recidivism
by requiring five- or ten-year stays in prison for all offenders,
recall that this would represent a doubling or quadrupling of what
is already a world record prison population. Keeping people in
prison longer has a delaying effect on recidivism, but not an overall
reducing effect.
􀀗 Increasing time served does not contribute to general deterrence. One of
the rationales offered for adopting mandatory and longer prison
terms is that they will “send a message” to potential offenders that
crime will be punished harshly. Theoretically, this would cause
some people to refrain from committing a crime due to a costbenefit
calculation of the consequences of doing so. Unfortunately,
such logic conflicts with a long line of criminological research
that demonstrates that any deterrent effect of the criminal justice
system is achieved primarily by certainty of punishment, not
severity. That is, if the odds of apprehension are increased—such
as stationing more state troopers on the highway during a holiday
weekend to stop speeders—some people will engage in such
reasoning to avoid being caught (in this example, driving under
the speed limit). But merely increasing the scale of punishment has
little effect on deterrence since most offenders do not expect to be
apprehended anyway. Thus, the “message” that lawmakers try to
send is not heard very distinctly.
􀀗 Time in prison is expensive. As a corollary of potential reductions in
prison populations through changes in time served, state governments
could realize significant cost savings. In rough terms, at a
cost of $25,000 a year to house a person in prison, a 32 percent
reduction in time served, would yield savings of more than $150
million a year for a state prison system of 20,000 inmates.
􀀗 Longer prison terms erode community ties. Given high rates of recidivism,
it is essential to enable people in prison to maintain ties to
family and community that can aid in the reentry process after
leaving prison. Increasing the length of prison terms only contributes
to a fraying of those ties because of the difficulties involved
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Alternatives to the Carceral State: A Panel Discussion 705
in visiting and communicating with incarcerated family members.
In addition, lengthy terms of imprisonment result in financial and
emotional burdens on the family members left behind, further
disadvantaging many low-income neighborhoods.
Enacting change in the time served in prison can come from
several quarters, and can be accomplished either through front-end
or back-end reforms. At the level of sentencing policy, such changes
could take place through the actions of a state sentencing commission
or a legislative body. Areas of focus would need to include mandatory
sentencing provisions, “truth in sentencing” statutes that increase time
served, parole eligibility policies, and the creation of a range of sentencing
Longer stays in prison, though, are not just a function of sentencing
policy, but also result from sentencing decisions by judges. In this
regard, we can view sentencing practice as determined in part by
the political and cultural environment in which it takes place. Since
sentencing practices for similar offenses are more punitive in the United
States than in other nations, we need to attempt to understand why
the prevailing climate in the United States leads to such outcomes and
how we might begin to engage in political debate and public education
that could alter those dynamics in favor of a more rational approach to
sentencing policy and practice.
Mark Mauer's Article