Long Prison Terms

Eliminating excessive prison sentences and developing a public-health informed and community-driven violence prevention strategy is necessary to reduce mass incarceration.

We are at a critical moment in the burgeoning criminal justice reform movement. Sentencing and correctional reform efforts continue to progress but have largely focused on the “low hanging fruit” of excessive use of incarceration for minor drug and property offenses.

While this approach has slowed the rate of prison growth, it has not yielded meaningful reductions in mass incarceration. Reforms targeting people convicted of nonviolent offenses are a necessary first step in rejecting the “tough on crime” policies of the past, but the evidence is clear that they are insufficient to effect deep and sustainable reductions in the prison population.

Rolling back mass incarceration requires moving beyond minor drug and property offenses and expanding focus to include long prison sentences and time served, particularly for violent offenses. People in prison for violent offenses have been the primary driver of the prison population for the last two decades. Recent trends in prison admissions suggest that violent offenses will continue to be the major driver of the prison population moving forward.

People serving long sentences place a major strain on public budgets and have a cumulative effect on the correctional population—even when admissions to prison decline, people serving long sentences are “stacking up” in prison.

Costly, inhumane, and racially discriminatory, long prison terms do little to deliver on promises of increased public safety.


As people grow old in prison, their housing and medical care costs increase exponentially. This aging of the prison population due to excessive sentences has been well documented. Several states have adopted geriatric and medical parole policies aimed at reducing the number of older individuals in prison, but very few people have been released on compassionate grounds, and these policies are largely ineffective at reducing imprisonment.

Public Safety

There is a wide body of evidence demonstrating that criminal behavior declines with age. Prison sentences that keep people incarcerated well beyond their “crime-prone” years are providing no additional public safety benefits. This is borne out in the incredibly low recidivism rates for people released from prison after serving long sentences.


Research has found that longer prison sentences do not deter future criminal offending. At least one study has documented that longer sentences promote criminality. The evolving consensus in the field of criminal justice is that people are not deterred by the severity of the punishment (sentence length), but rather the certainty and swiftness of receiving a sanction.

Unfortunately, long sentences have been largely left out of recent reforms, many considering them the political “third rail.” Yet this is the very population that holds the promise of dramatically reducing the prison population without posing a threat to public safety.

Real Steps Towards Ending Mass Incarceration

Learn more about the emerging campaign to end long prison terms and dramatically shift our approach towards violence and incarceration.

Justice Policy Institute Resources​

Outside Organization Resources