America’s Harsh Criminal Sentences Are Out of Step

Dana Marie Isaac

New research conducted by USF’s Human Rights in Criminal Sentencing Project reveals that U.S. criminal sentencing practices are out of step with 193 nations.
Criminals in the U.S. receive longer sentences for lesser crimes, including life without parole (LWOP) for nonviolent offenders and for juveniles, putting the country at odds with sentencing practices in the rest of the world, according to the recent University of San Francisco study.
Among the study’s most disturbing findings is that the U.S. is the only country in the world that sentences juveniles to life without parole (JLWOP), said Dana Marie Isaac, one of the report’s authors and a project director at the USF School of Law’s Project to End JLWOP.
The study, compiled from information collected though a survey of all 193 United Nations member countries, also revealed that the number of adult prisoners serving LWOP sentences in the U.S. tripled in recent years, rising from 12,000 in 1992 to more than 41,000 in 2008. By contrast, there are currently 137 prisoners serving LWOP sentences in all of Australia, England, and the Netherlands combined.
American prisoners account for a 25 percent of the world’s prison population, while U.S. citizens account for less than 5 percent of the world’s population.
The findings are disconcerting. “These astounding numbers show that something in our legal system and laws is out of step with sentencing practices around the world,” Isaac said. “It’s creating an overcrowding problem and straining government resources.”
The overcrowding problem needs to be rectified, both for the sake of those being sentenced and the taxpayers covering the rising costs of incarceration, Isaac said. She hopes the study will educate the general public about the issues facing American’s criminal justice system.
“The American public does not have a real understanding of some of these sentencing practices,” Isaac said.
The full report, “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context,” was researched and written by Isaac and two human rights fellows in the School of Law’s Center for Law and Global Justice as part of the Human Rights in Criminal Sentencing Project.
Courtesy of Taylor Fredericks, USF.