The Sentencing Project released a new report, “Counting Down: Paths to a 20-Year Maximum Prison Sentence,” which examines opportunities to address the country’s high rates of incarceration and excessive sentences. 

Countries like Germany and Norway illustrate that sentences can be far shorter without sacrificing public safety. Criminological evidence shows that unduly long sentences are unnecessary because people age out of crime, and the general threat of long-term imprisonment is an ineffective deterrent.

The report recommends seven legislative reforms to right-size prison sentences:

  1. Abolish death and life without parole sentences, limiting maximum sentences to 20 years.
  2. Limit murder statutes to intentional killings, excluding offenses such as felony murder, and reduce homicide penalties.
  3. Eliminate mandatory minimum sentences and reform sentencing guidelines to ensure that judges can use their discretion to consider mitigating circumstances.
  4. Provide universal access to parole and ensure timely review.
  5. Eliminate consecutive sentences and limit sentence enhancements, including repealing “truth-in-sentencing” and “habitual offender” laws.
  6. Create an opportunity for judicial “second look” resentencing within a maximum of 10 years of imprisonment, regardless of an individual’s offense.
  7. Shift all sentences downward, including by de-felonizing many offenses and decriminalizing many misdemeanors.

Capping all sentences at 20 years is a challenging but feasible policy goal, and a project worthy of advocates’ and policymakers’ attention. Creating a proportional and fair justice system will take more than just shortening sentences, but it is a task integral to a wholesale reimagining of public safety.