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Marc Mauer The Hidden Problem of Time Served in Prison A S S E S S IN G T H E P O L IT IC A L A N D CULTURAL FO R C E S B E H I N D T H E unprecedented increase in the use of incarceration in the United States in the late decades of the tw entieth century is a complex undertak­ ing. If we are to some day reverse these trends and move tow ard a m ore hum ane and constructive response to interpersonal conflict, it behooves us to both transform the political climate in which policies are developed and to identify the particular policy changes necessary to move toward decarceration. This essay attem pts to address the latter point, and to address an area of sentencing policy—tim e served in pris­ on—that has received far too little attention. At its essence, the size of a prison system is a function of how m any people are adm itted to prison and how long they rem ain there. Policymakers and reform ers w ho have been concerned about rising prison populations have been far more focused on the admissions side of the equation. Areas of concern in this regard have included such factors as: the availability of alternatives to incarceration; sentencing policies that restrict judicial discretion; the rise in incarceration of drug offenders; and in recent years, probation and parole revocations as a growing source of admissions. These are clearly all im portant areas ofattention and indeed, there is evidence of some im pact on diverting offenders from prison. Such examples include drug courts and other treatm ent-oriented diversion structures, sentencing guideline mechanisms that encourage commu­ social research Vol 74 : No 2 : Summer 2007 701 nity-based sanctions for nonviolent offenses, and the developm ent of graduated sanctions for parole violations that avoid lengthy new prison terms. One can argue that m any of these policies encourage or result in a net-widening effect as well, but there is nonetheless reason to believe that there have been at least modest successes in reducing admissions to prison in some jurisdictions. Despite these successes, the prison population continues its inex­ orable rise. Of particular note here is th at the increase in the prison population has far outpaced the rise in the num ber of felony convic­ tions in recent years. Between 1992 and 2002, the num ber of people in state prisons increased by 59 percent, compared w ith an 18 percent rise in the num ber of felony convictions. And w ith virtually no change in the likelihood of receiving a prison term upon conviction during this period, neither o f these dynamics provides the bulk of the explanation as to why prison populations have continued to climb. One part of the explanation, as was noted, is the increasing rate of parole violators sent back to prison. But the other contributing factor, m uch less the focus of policymaker attention, is the increasing length of tim e served in prison, particularly since the 1990s. Time served in prison has been the focus of some attention at the extremes of the policy. The spate of “three strikes and you’re out” poli­ cies that were enacted in the 1990s in half the states have resulted in a truly distorted use of correctional resources in states such as California. That state now has 8,000 people serving sentences of 25 years to life, nearly half o f w hom were convicted o f a property or drug crim e as their third strike. Similarly, federal m andatory penalties have resulted in such cases as the 55-year prison term given to W eldon Angelos, a 24-year-old record producer convicted o f three m arijuana sales. Because Angelos possessed a weapon during the transactions—w hich he did not use or threaten to use—the sentencing judge was obligated to impose this draconian sentence. Upon doing so, Judge Paul Cassell noted that “The Court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational.” W hile these policies...


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