Thinking Outside the Box on Prison Sentences

Change is often a good thing. Thinking outside the box can bring about dynamic and fresh solutions to longstanding problems. That’s why I’m hoping that President Trump’s administration — which is on record as wanting to upend the status quo in Washington, D.C. — will employ this kind of thinking with the subject of prison sentencing reform.

For too long, politicians have told us that a lengthy prison sentence equals increased public safety and crime deterrence, that giving convicts the longest possible prison term will keep them from future criminal activity and scare others from committing a similar crime. Some lawmakers have also fully embraced the idea of mandatory minimum sentences, especially for drug-related cases, even though it takes power away from the judges who actually hear the evidence.

But guess what. Turns out this mindset has not only resulted in massive and costly prison overcrowding but it’s also based on questionable logic.

The National Research Council, or NRC, the nonpartisan research arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, took a deep dive into the ramifications of the U.S. policy of doling out prison sentences that are as long as possible. It concluded that because criminal behavior generally decreases with age, locking up people on the taxpayers’ dime until they’re 70 or 80 years old is counterproductive.

Now that’s not to say that long sentences or even life sentences will be ineffective for “high-rate or extremely dangerous offenders,” as the NRC wrote in its 2014 report “The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences.” It’s just that applying excessively harsh sentencing across the board has had no effect on the number of crimes committed. It clogs our prisons, and as of 2014, incarceration costs the country $80 billion a year. 

So, what would actually help decrease the crime rate? Criminologists have found that those committing crimes usually have no idea what kind of sentence their actions might net them and that “certainty of apprehension” is far more important to them.

The NRC study reports that “arrests ensue for only a small fraction of all reported crimes.” For example, the number of robberies reported to police have outnumbered robbery arrests by about 4 to 1, and the offense-to-arrest ratio for burglaries is about 5 to 1. These ratios have “remained stable since 1980.” Those bent on bad deeds know the odds of getting caught, which gives them a decisive advantage, so they take their chances.

The underlying problem here is easy to see: It is not the length of the prison sentence. Rather, it’s the efficiency of our criminal justice system and the citizenry’s willingness to become involved. If eyewitnesses came forward more often, police could make more solid arrests, and prosecutors could launch more effective prosecutions. And if courts were able to follow up by scheduling swift trials, criminals would begin to see the odds are no longer in their favor.

See what I mean about thinking outside the box? We’ve been focusing on sentencing when we should have been strengthening and streamlining our justice system.

As America ages, the crime rates in almost all categories have been going down and the prison population has decreased a bit. But that doesn’t mean we should stop talking about how to further reduce the numbers. The Sentencing Project organization notes that 2.2 million Americans are now incarcerated. It reports that, among other things, some states have modified sentencing guidelines by reclassifying felonies as misdemeanors. But the group believes the “‘tough on crime'” mindset of the past should be replaced by a “‘smart on crime'” political environment nationwide. I agree. Getting smarter about how we spend that $80 billion could begin a remarkable new cycle.

First, we’ve got to launch a rigorous nationwide treatment program to rehabilitate and offer meaningful job training to those lower-level prisoners who are bound for future freedom. That could turn stigmatized convicts into important taxpaying members of society after their release.

Second, we need to keep in mind that criminals don’t usually sprout from loving, stable, hardworking, two-parent families. Children exposed to a violent upbringing are at a much higher risk of getting caught in the cycle of violence and committing crimes as an adult. Spending some of those billions to help at-risk children break free from the cycle would go a tremendously long way toward reducing the prison population.

This isn’t just thinking outside the box. This is common sense.



  1. Diane Dimond on February 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Jesse Arenas writes:

    I read your article ” Thinking outside the box on prison sentences. It made me think about children growing up in the school system here in Albuquerque, N.M.
    Talking to my grandchildren here, they are all A students. My grandson said that the kids are so disruptive in class that he only has REAL learning 20% of the time. I have heard this before. The kids are not really held to task. The teachers can’t really discipline the kids old school or they get in trouble. You can just like at the crime here and see that these kid glove methods are not working. Fear is respect. If you don’t have that why should they listen . You can’t touch them. They need a hard hand. They need to know who is in charge and don’t get just to sit in a corner unless they are going to copy about 3 pages of dictionary on both side of the page and if need to be have someone stand over them until they do what they are supposed to do. They need not sit and do nothing. That is no punishment. They need to be uncomfortable when punished so it is something they want to stay away from and not get in trouble. Studying in school is a more comfortable environment . Otherwise the school system promotes criminals. Teachers have to be able to control their classroom. They need to develop respect for authorities also. The police is your friend unless you do wrong, then the will punish you. This is you prevention program . From the Bible: Proverbs 22:6 Direct your children onto the right path and when they are older, they will not leave it.. I used to be a police officer in the 1970″s and the 1980’s. If I caught kids with cigarettes under age, I would confiscate them, give them a receipt for them even if they claimed their parents let them have them . I told them if that was true, bring their parents to the Police Dept. and I would release the cigarettes to them. NOBODY ever came to claim them. If illegally riding a bike I would pull over and give them a warning. Always treated them fair but if they got in trouble for little things they KNEW they would be in BIG TROUBLE if they did something bigger wrong. I had Respect. Some didn’t like me because I was strict but they RESPECTED ME. Fear is sometimes respect. The kids need guide lines. They WANT guidelines. But if they don’t have guidelines and Follow Through then you get an Albuquerque, New Mexico. There was a neighborhood one time that was having a lot of thefts and vandalism. I went to the core of it and started walking around. Some kids came up to me and asked me who I was looking for and who was in trouble. I told them “Why does somebody have to be in trouble for me to meet them . I introduced myself and talked to them for awhile and started to leave and they asked if I would be back the next day. These kids had no fathers or dysfunctional family. I became their father as much as I could and crime in this area went down 80% or more. I had Jr. High kids make me stuff in shop. I listened to them and advocated for them. A couple got into trouble but not serious. The rest became something. I got a babysitting jobs for a teenager, which gave her money and self-esteem. One or two have died. The baby sitter is about 50 yrs old now and still communicates with me once in awhile.

  2. Diane Dimond on February 6, 2017 at 5:48 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Paul Burnett writes:

    Thanks again for an outstanding op-ed. I really appreciate your efforts to improve justice by thinking outside the box. Keep up the great work!

    Paul Burnett
    Los Lunas, NM=

  3. Diane Dimond on February 6, 2017 at 5:52 pm

    ABQ Journal Reader Mike Gandy writes:

    Love this article! I agree that sentencing is not fair punishment. As they say, prisoners get “three hots and a cot.” Free meals, free living space, free medical… all on the taxpayer’s dime. They get away with murder, and then we pay for their living arrangements. I don’t think prison should be a social environment, and I think they should work for their food, bed, clothes, toothpaste, and medical. Plus, change up the punishments to certain crimes. If you get one DWI, take away their car and their license for life. If they are a sex offender, take away all of their electronic devices and ban them from the internet, and order a medical procedure to prevent them for ever getting off again. And as you said, better education helps prevent these crimes in the first place.

  4. Alan Fountain on February 6, 2017 at 7:20 pm

    i have much to say on the private for profit prison system and its links to customers who were victims of youth molestation. The hyper-masculinity of vulnerability to admit this is where their maladaptive behaviors begin makes them a component for acting out beginning their rap sheets. This population uses drugs to numb the pain and now doing drug sentences taking taxpayer state and federal funds to prop up this maladaptive economy. 22% of youth are traumatized and we do so little as predators are in the legislature, the pentagon, anywhere positions of power to protect their fate. My research projects show great correlation to this shadow govt predator friendly drug culture being allowed to violate at certain percentages to go free. I believe it’s factored into this statistic( Private correctional facilities were a $4.8 billion industry last year, with profits of $629 million, according to market research firm IBISWorld.
    We turn heads to the 4% of Predator population violating on average 100 youth each over their perp lifetime cycle. This is a cottage industry that brought lobbyist threats from a lobbyist of private prisons into my life to shut me up, lobbyist (JPC) when I published the report. I admit I posted before reading your report but know this connection is documented although less known as we could prevent it if the perps were not in power in gov and rich. The prison system is out of balance as noted in documentary 13 to black population and to the less reported victims of molestation and sex crimes being the wrongly incarcerated. These numbers add up to many prisoners who were once innocent children that our relaxed culture on not fixing the situation by putting the perps in prison and not their victims who act out their pain over a lifetime. Time for real change in public policy.

  5. Diane Dimond on February 6, 2017 at 8:21 pm

    Twitter Pal S D Wheeler@ShirleyWhel07 writes:

    @DiDimond Violent crime prisoners should never b released but others I have no problem.

  6. Diane Dimond on February 7, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    Anonymous Reader “Bill” writes:

    Dear Ms. Dimond,

    Thank you putting forth such a notion of “changing criminals mindsets” instead of punishment.

    As you stated lengthy prison sentences sounds good to many, “Get the criminals off the street”! If you stand back and look at the situation the prisons are run by private companies to make a profit. There is little effort to rehabilitate criminals and some people get thrown in for crimes that could best serve them, and the public, by doing public service. Instead the taxpayer foots this tremendous bill.

    By landing in prison people are forced to protect themselves in prison and they often become predators on other prisoners. This does nothing to rehabilitate them and prepare them for getting back into society. If they do get out they usually end right back in prison. This reminds me of Debtors Prison of the past; it was very unproductive, first the debtor had to be housed, second their family often went destitute and ended up stealing or selling their bodies to make money and stay alive. At the end of the day a large number of people were effected negatively.

    I was T-boned by a car in 2009 while riding my bicycle. I was thrown in the air 15 feet and landed 30 feet back and 6 feet North of the car, on the pavement. I was in a coma and a bit broken up, but have survived and see how pointless prosecuting the driver would have been. She was a teacher who made a mistake. Can you imagine if she was thrown in prison as people wanted to do and has been proposed in the NM State Legislature? She was a descent person who probably would have been messed up for life. She is very sorry about what happened. I feel lots of community service would have been appropriate and her skills should be utilized, not just trash pickup. It would give lots of time for meditation on what happened.

    Lastly you bring up witnesses coming forward. This area needs major revision. A witness should not be seen or identified to the defendants. They set themselves up for a life of harassment or worse by testifying. I have been on many juries and think witnesses should be anonymous, seen only by the judge and attorneys, further the lengthy legal process which takes away lots of a person’s time discourages witnesses to come forth.

    I prefer to remain anonymous,


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