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Length of Incarcerations Analyzed by Bocanegra, National Criminal Justice Task Force

U.S. prisons are currently housing more than 2 million individuals, with nearly 775,000 of those inmates sentenced to spend at least 10 years of their life behind bars. But how long is long enough? That’s what Jane Addams College of Social Work Assistant Professor Kathryn Bocanegra and her colleagues on the Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Long Sentences were charged with finding out.

The Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) organized a 16-member national group, comprised of crime victims and survivors, formerly incarcerated individuals, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement officials, and representatives of the courts and corrections, among others, to examine how long prison terms affect public safety, crime victims and survivors, incarcerated individuals and their families, communities, and correctional staff. An analysis by the organization found that 63% of people in state prison were serving a sentence of 10 years or more in 2020, up from 46% in 2005.

During its year-long analysis, the CCJ generated a report with 14 recommendations including enhancing judicial discretion in sentencing, promoting individual and system accountability, reducing racial and ethnic disparities, and better serving crime victims. These recommendations, as well as implementation guidelines, can be found in their report, “How Long is Long Enough."

“Much of criminal justice policy reforms have been driven by responses to violent crime and crime victims’ experiences. Therefore, a task force with a focus on long-term prison sentences – which most typically involve the most serious forms of crime – necessitates beginning with the victim’s experience.”

Kathryn Bocanegra
Kathryn Bocanegra, PhD

The task force was co-chaired by former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and former U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. John Maki, who previously led the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority and the John Howard Association, an independent Illinois corrections oversight organization, served as the task force’s director.

As part of the Task Force, CCJ generated several research reports to provide more information on the impact of long-term prison sentences. Some of these reports include “Factors Affecting Time Served in Prison,” “The Impact of Long Prison Sentences on Public Safety,” “Long Sentences: An International Perspective,” and “Reflections on Long Prison Sentences,” from interviews and focus groups conducted with crime survivors and systems-impacted individuals. Bocanegra, PhD, has been assisting crime victims for the past 18 years, 13 of which have involved supporting groups for families of homicide victims. The task force was searching for an expert who could speak to the needs of crime victims and their expectations of the criminal legal system, and Bocanegra was the person they were looking for.

“Much of criminal justice policy reforms have been driven by responses to violent crime and crime victims’ experiences,” Bocanegra said. “Therefore, a task force with a focus on long-term prison sentences – which most typically involve the most serious forms of crime – necessitates beginning with the victim’s experience.”

Long prison sentences have been used in the U.S. for most of its history, the report said. With communities across the country experiencing an extended and severe rise in violent crime in the 1970s through the early 1990s, lawmakers increased sentence length and the amount of time people served for violent, drug-based, and repeat offending. Driven in part by these changes and a more recent decline in people serving shorter sentences, the percentage of incarcerated people serving long sentences of 10 years or more has grown substantially.

“Some may wonder, why would we even discuss the nation’s use of long prison sentences now, amid a rise in homicide rates and legitimate public concern about public safety? Because this is exactly the time to examine what will actually make our communities safer and our system more just,” Yates and Gowdy said in a joint statement. “When crime rates increase, so do calls for stiffer sentencing, often without regard to the effectiveness or fairness of those sentences. Criminal justice policy should be based on facts and evidence, not rhetoric and emotion, and we should be laser-focused on strategies that make the most effective use of our limited resources.”

To develop the recommendations, the task force reviewed existing evidence and commissioned original research that filled gaps in knowledge about how long sentences impact public safety and prison populations. The research included “The Impact of Long Sentences on Public Safety: A Complex Relationship;” “The Public Safety Impact of Shortening Lengthy Prison Terms;” and “Reflections on Long Prison Sentences: A Conversation with Crime Survivors, Formerly Incarcerated People, and Family Members,” among others.

The CCJ advances understanding of the criminal justice policy choices facing the nation and builds consensus for solutions that enhance safety and justice for all. Established in 2019, the organization believes that a fair and effective criminal justice system is essential to democracy and a core measure of the U.S.’ well-being. The organization, Bocanegra said, has strong alliances with local and state governments, including government institutions, and through that national network the organization will disseminate the report and its recommendations.

“As with other task forces that the CCJ has coordinated, the report is to serve as a launching pad for local reform efforts,” she said. “The report provides substantial research evidence to back its recommendations, and it’s upon local jurisdictions to contextually interpret these recommendations and devise appropriate responses to long-term prison sentences.”

Bocanegra’s experience on the task force has inspired a current research project, funded by the Illinois Sentencing Policy Advisory Council, where she is examining the impact of long-term prison sentences by analyzing 10 years of administrative data from the Illinois Department of Corrections. She will also conduct in-depth interviews with men and women who have served 10 years or more in the IDOC. Bocanegra anticipates the final report will be completed in December 2023.

To read the full report from the Task Force for Long Sentences, visit here.