‘Cruel and Unusual'

U.S. Sentences Harsh by World Standards

Criminals in the U.S. are punished with longer sentences for lesser crimes than in most other countries, putting America at odds with sentencing practices in the rest of the world, according to a recent study at the USF School of Law. The U.S. incarcerates a shocking 25 percent of all prisoners worldwide, but has less than 5 percent of the world’s population.

Among the study’s most disturbing findings: the U.S. is the only country that sentences juveniles to life without parole (JLWOP); and the number of adult prisoners serving life without parole (LWOP) sentences in the U.S. tripled from 12,000 in 1992 to more than 41,000 in 2008. By contrast, there are only 137 prisoners serving LWOP sentences in Australia, England, and the Netherlands combined. 

USF researchers collected their data from a survey of all 193 United Nations member countries.

The findings are disconcerting for Dana Marie Isaac ’11, one of the report’s authors and a project director at the USF School of Law’s Project to End JLWOP. “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.”

Isaac hopes the study will help educate the general public about the issues facing America’s criminal justice system. “The American public does not have a real understanding of some of these sentencing practices,” said Isaac, who wrote the report, “Cruel and Unusual: U.S. Sentencing Practices in a Global Context,” with two human rights fellows from the law school.

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