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Is America’s proven emphasis on long prison terms misguided?

“[T]here’s really no sentence that’s too long when it comes to violent offenses,” says an American justice system commentator spotlighting a core belief held by legions of industry principals. That individual stresses that such a view has been “a dominant force in our criminal justice system for over 40 years,” back to the advent of the country’s War on Crime hardline stance against offenders.

As a recent BBC article notes, that philosophy has had notable effects. It has led to more people being imprisoned in the U.S. than in any other country. It has reportedly brought a 400% spike in the nation’s prison population since the 1970s. And it costs American taxpayers close to $60 billion yearly in upkeep costs.

But it works, right?

Actually, reams of empirical evidence indicate that it doesn’t and is in fact woefully ineffective at reducing crime and rehabilitating offenders.

The above-cited BBC piece – which provides an in-depth look at the American system compared with other criminal justice models – underscores marked upsides attached to models other than America’s go-to approach stressing lengthy lockups in millions of instances. In fact, many local communities and states across the United States are closely studying and adopting new approaches aimed at better reducing costs and reducing recidivism rates of prisoners.

Norway often comes to the fore for its open-prison concept applicable to most prisoners. Inmates are confined to generally short terms (especially compared with American prisoners) and have an impressive degree of in-custody freedom. The focus is on reduced prisoner-guard conflict and on prisoner programs that encourage inmates to take responsibility and prepare for their post-release future. The reoffending rate of released Norwegian prisoners is reportedly just a fraction of what it is in the United States, and prison administration is far cheaper.

As stated above, new philosophies that incorporate features from other countries’ justice models are being explored and implemented in many U.S. communities. With drug offenders, for example, reformers see a strong upside linked with programs such as drug courts, treatment facilities, job training/educational offerings and other alternatives to prison.

Reform advocates – and there are many from diverse camps and both sides of the political aisle – have compelling reasons to forge meaningful change.

Cost savings alone could be huge. One recent report posits that American taxpayers could save about $200 billion within a decade by materially reducing the country’s prison population.

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