Brittney Griner’s Sentence Should Be a Wakeup Call About Cruel Prison Sentences in the United States

Marta Nelson Director of Sentencing Reform // Erica Bryant Associate Director of Writing
Aug 30, 2022

When a Russian court sentenced WNBA star Brittney Griner to nine years in prison for bringing 0.7 grams of cannabis oil into Moscow, President Joe Biden expressed outrage at the harsh punishment. Calling the sentence “unacceptable,” he issued a statement committing to “work tirelessly and pursue every possible avenue” to gain her freedom.

This commitment should extend to people who are serving unimaginably harsh sentences in the United States. The “land of the free” incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation and has some of the most draconian sentencing practices in the world. The Sentencing Project found that, as of 2020, one in seven (203,865) people in U.S. prisons was serving a life sentence—more than the country’s entire incarcerated population in 1970.

Among the nearly 2 million people currently incarcerated in the United States are those like Allen Russell, who was sentenced to life in prison under Mississippi’s unbending habitual offender laws after being convicted of possessing one and a half ounces of cannabis—a sentence recently upheld by the state’s Supreme Court. Cannabis possession should not be subject to a punishment model and many municipalities in the United States are rightly moving away from harsh sentences for this behavior. However, habitual offender laws, along with mandatory minimums, result in harsh sentences for people without regard for individual circumstances or whether the person presents an ongoing safety risk. Average sentences remain much greater than those found in other Western democracies.

These harsh sentences are the result of a criminal legal system that defaults to the practice of ubiquitous and lengthy prison time without acknowledging evidence that incarceration doesn’t make us safer or repair harm when it occurs. In fact, severe sentences do not deter crime. Surveyed crime survivors also see the value in rehabilitative sentencing, with six in 10 preferring shorter sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation.

Our overreliance on incarceration and punishment creates its own harm. Prison sentences not only fail to prevent people from reoffending, they can actually increase it. Stripping communities of vital residents—including parents and breadwinners—can destabilize them. The brutality of U.S. prisons and lack of resources for those released can also negatively affect people’s behavior while incarcerated and when they return home. This devastation has had disproportionately greater repercussions for Black and Latinx people as far as loss of life and human capital and impact on families and communities. Nearly one-third of Black adults have had an immediate family member incarcerated for more than one year, more than three times the rate of white adults.

There are far better options than our current overreliance on prison sentences to preserve people’s liberty, promote safe communities, and—in crimes involving victims—repair harm. Community-based sentences, including community service, treatment programs, and restorative justice, have a track record of delivering behavioral change and safety, even though they have been sorely underutilized in this country.

Elected officials can and should also pass laws to end harsh sentencing in the United States. Productive legislative steps include abolishing mandatory minimum sentences, removing prior conviction enhancements like three-strikes laws, setting maximum prison sentences for the most severe crimes at 20 years, allowing people to earn significant time off of their sentences for positive behavior, and allowing all convictions to be considered for community-based sentences. In addition to preventing new harsh sentences, lawmakers can create “second-look” sentencing reviews that allow the reduction of existing sentences that are disproportionately harsh.

Better alternatives exist and harsh sentences do not make us safer. It’s time to make incarceration a limited exception, not the rule.