It notes that the prison population in the United States "has declined modestly in recent years," in part, because "of saner sentencing policies for nonviolent drug offenders, who are more likely to be given probation and drug treatment than in the past."
On the other hand, the number of people serving life sentences (one in every nine prisoners) "has more than quadrupled since 1984 and continues to grow at a startling pace." Notes the Times:
Many of these lifers were convicted of nonviolent crimes or of crimes that occurred before they turned 18. For much of the 20th century, a sentence as harsh as life without parole was rarely used ... Harsher sentences once reserved for people convicted of capital crimes were expanded to include robbery, assault and nonviolent drug offenses.The situation was exacerbated when States "restricted the use of parole" and governors not wanting to appear "soft" on crime "began to deny virtually all clemency requests."
Research shows lengthy sentences do nothing to improve public safety. But these long sentences are turning prisons into geriatric centers where the cost of care is prohibitively high. The practice of routinely locking up people forever — especially young people — also ignores the potential for rehabilitation. The whole trend is deeply counterproductive.The solution: more "rational" sentencing, restoration of executive clemency and re-introduction of parole. See full editorial here.