A New Paradigm for Sentencing in the United States

Sentencing report 786x786


To understand how the United States became one of the most incarcerated nations in the world, it is critical to understand the role that excessive and harsh sentencing has played. In this report, Vera addresses a main driver of mass incarceration: our sentencing system. Dismantling our system of mass incarceration in favor of a narrowly tailored sentencing response to unlawful behavior can produce more safety, repair harm, and reduce incarceration by close to 80 percent, according to modeling on the federal system. This report summarizes the evidence surrounding sentencing’s impact on safety, offers new guiding principles for sentencing legislation that privilege liberty, outlines seven key sentencing reforms in line with these guiding principles, and suggests a “North Star” for sentencing policy with a presumption toward community-based sentences except in limited circumstances.

Key Takeaway

Severe sentences do not deter crime, retribution often does not help survivors of crime heal, and the U.S. sentencing system overestimates who is a current danger to the community and when incarceration is needed for public safety. Instead, we need a system that privileges liberty while creating real safety and repairing harm.

Publication Highlights

  • The United States must move away from sentencing policy rooted in retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation, which the evidence shows do not deliver safety and satisfaction.

  • To reduce mass incarceration, prison sentences should be capped at 20 years for adults convicted of the most serious crimes and 15 years for young people up to age 25.

  • Other sentencing reforms should include removing prior conviction sentencing enhancements, abolishing mandatory minimums, and creating second-look resentencing options for those currently behind bars.

Key Facts