Study Shows Low Safety Risk of Reducing Long Sentences

When Sam Lewis visits prisons to speak with inmates, he’s sometimes suited up, which at times causes inmates to confuse him for a police officer, a warden or a preacher. They are incredulous when he tells them he is a former life prisoner.

“They’ll say something like, ‘I’m gonna have a suit like you one day.’ And I’d say no, you’re gonna have a suit that’s better,” Lewis said. “But let me explain what you need to do.”

Sam Lewis served 24 years in prison before his release in 2012. Now, he is the Chief Operating Officer of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit organization serving as a support network for formerly incarcerated individuals and advocates for criminal justice reform.

But as Lewis was before his release, several incarcerated individuals are consistently denied parole. Recent studies show many former lifers like Lewis, and others serving long sentences, could be released with a low risk to public safety, adding fuel to an ongoing debate on sentencing between how punitive and rehabilitative prison sentences should be.

During the fiscal year 2014-2015, 682 Californians serving life in prison were granted parole, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Sixteen, or 2.3 percent, were convicted of any additional crimes over a three-year follow-up period. Only three committed a felony crime against a person.

Recent Council on Criminal Justice research suggests a similar trend: reducing sentences of 10 years or longer by modest margins can slice prison populations without damaging public safety.

The study based its estimates on an analysis of people released after serving prison sentences of 10 years or more in Illinois. It found that reducing long sentences to as much as three years would have “a virtually undetectable” increase in annual crimes, estimating only 11 to 37 additional arrests, while reducing time served by 10 percent, 20 percent, or 30 percent would result in an estimated 17 to 63 additional arrests in Illinois.

As estimated in the study, the more significant number of additional arrests will constitute less than a tenth of a percent increase in crimes.

Additionally, researchers found the additional arrests that may occur when prison stays are shortened are unlikely to be for violent crimes or weapons charges, and the report concludes that many older people serving long sentences have “aged out” of violent crime at the tail end of their sentences.

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, about 19.5 percent of inmates are 51 years or older.

“It’s an opportunity for states to think about: Do we want to reward change by potentially releasing people before their sentence expires?” said John Maki, the Director of the Council’s Task Force on Long Sentences.

The study found that reducing sentences of over 10 years by one year could reduce Illinois’s average daily prison population by 1.3 percent while cutting long prison stays by 30% would drop the prison population by 7.2 percent, which would slice prison costs dramatically.

A 2017 Pew Trusts study found that, per inmate, healthcare spending in 2015 had a median price tag of $5,680 across 48 states. New Hampshire did not provide data, and North Dakota’s was incomplete.

In California, the cost was $19,796, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

But Martin F. Horn, former New York Commissioner of Corrections and a Distinguished Lecturer in Corrections at the John Jay College, warns against generalizing.

“Beyond the age 55, the frequency with which individuals commit crimes diminishes, there’s no question that that’s true,” Horn said. “But that doesn’t mean that you can just say, well, let’s let out everybody over 55.”

According to Horn, who said the U.S. over utilizes incarceration, the question concerns whether the additional crimes of having shorter sentences and the savings they’d bring are worth it.

But most U.S. states are not yet prepared to reduce long sentences.

According to a Families Against Mandatory Minimums report card grading all 50 states and Washington D.C. ‘s use of compassionate releases from October 2022, all but six states recorded below a B- with over having received F’s.

But Sam Lewis, the former lifer and Chief Operating Officer of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, says he is not unique. Thousands of people like him are waiting to be released.

He recalled the judge saying he was not redeemable and going to the board, who repeated the same thing multiple times. The same board that if they had continued to say he was unredeemable, he would still be in prison.

“When you share everything you’ve done to become a better person, people begin to look at say, ‘wait a minute, maybe you deserve a second chance.’” Lewis said. “That’s what happened with me.”

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