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Sentencing Reports Show Longer Sentences, Few Compassionate Releases

by Benjamin Tschirhart and Casey J. Bastian

On July 20, 2022, the nonprofit Council on Criminal Justice (CCJ) reported a spike in the share of state prisoners serving long sentences, with 57% now locked up for ten years or more. As a result, the average length of time served has also ballooned from 9.7 years to 15.5 years, as has the age of those serving time, with the 55-and-over share jumping from 8% in 2005 to 19% by 2019.

The report, Long Sentences by the Numbers, drew on data collected over that time period from 29 state prison systems, whose statistics were collated by the U.S. Department of Justice’s National Corrections Reporting Program. The federal prison system is not represented in the data set, but CCJ’s Task Force on Long Sentences believes it represents the most complete and consistent sample of national trends in prison sentencing in general, and for long sentences in particular.

Much of the growth in long sentences is blamed on sentence “stacking” — when convictions on multiple charges for the same criminal activity each carries a sentence then served consecutively.

Offense types also figure prominently, of course, with violent crimes leading the list of recipients of long sentences, followed closely by drug crimes. However, sexual assault and rape showed the greatest overall increase, now being 11% more likely than other offenses to receive a sentence of ten or more years.

At the federal level, a separate report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC) has identified a link between length of incarceration and recidivism. Published on June 21, 2022, the report — Recidivism of Federal Offenders Released in 2010 — showed that nearly half of prisoners are arrested again within a few years after release, but those odds decline by one-third for prisoners sentenced to ten years or more.


It boils down to criminal history and age. Those with a serious criminal history had a higher recidivism rate, with more than three-quarters rearrested in the eight years after release, compared to just 30.2% of those whose criminal history was less serious. Moreover, the longer someone is locked up, the older he or she is when released, and older releasees are less likely to recidivate than their younger counterparts. Nearly three-quarters of releasees under 21 were rearrested in the eight years after release, compared to just 15.9% of those over 60.

Combining the two factors, the report noted that of those with the most serious history who were also under 21, none avoided rearrest — every single one was locked up again within eight years of release, compared to fewer than one in ten of those with the least serious history who were also 60 or over.

USSC also reported on the paucity of compassionate releases granted to federal prisoners during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in a study released on March 10, 2022, which counted just 1,805 such releases out of nearly 160,000 prisoners held by the federal Bureau of Prisons. [See: PLN, Oct. 2022, p.19.]

But there was a wide discrepancy between federal judicial circuits in the share of compassionate release applications granted. The First, Seventh, and Ninth circuits granted 10-20% more applications than the overall average, while the Fifth and Eleventh circuits granted 6-12% fewer applications.

U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer, until recently the commission’s last remaining member, said that USSC sentencing guidelines had not been updated since passage of the First Step Act of 2018, opening the door for such wide discrepancies and “underscore[ing] why it is crucial for the Commission to regain a quorum to again have the ability to address important policy issues in the criminal justice system.”

That may finally begin to happen, considering that on August 5, 2022, the U.S. Senate confirmed seven new members nominated in May by Pres. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D). 

Additional source: Bloomberg Law

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