The Failed Promise of Sentencing Reform

by Michael O'Hear


America's imprisonment rate today isn't just far above those of most Western democracies; it is also off the charts compared to our nation's historical norms.

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Cover image for The Failed Promise of Sentencing Reform

March 2017


Pages 268
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Current Events and Issues/Law and Crime
  Politics, Law, and Government/Law

Despite 15 years of reform efforts, the incarceration rate in the United States remains at an unprecedented high level. This book provides the first comprehensive survey of these reforms and explains why they have proven to be ineffective.

After many decades of stability, the imprisonment rate in the United States quintupled between 1973 and 2003. Since then, nearly all states have adopted multiple reforms intended to reduce imprisonment, but the U.S. imprisonment rate has only decreased by a paltry two percent. Why are American sentencing reforms since 2000 been largely ineffective? Are tough mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders the primary reason our prisons are always full? This book offers a fascinating assessment of the wave of sentencing reforms adopted by dozens of states as well as changes at the federal level since 2000, identifying common themes among seemingly disparate changes in sentencing policy and highlighting recent reform efforts that have been more successful and may point the way forward for the nation as a whole.

In The Failed Promise of Sentencing Reform, author Michael O'Hear exposes the myths that American prison sentencing reforms enacted in the 21st century have failed to have the expected effect because U.S. prisons are filled to capacity with nonviolent drug offenders as a result of the "war on drugs," and because of new laws that took away the discretion of judges and corrections officials. O'Hear then makes a convincing case for the real reason sentencing reforms have come up short: because they exclude violent and sexual offenders, and because they rely on the discretion of officials who still have every incentive to be highly risk-averse. He also highlights how overlooking the well-being of offenders and their families in our consideration of sentencing reform has undermined efforts to effect real change.


  • Clearly identifies the real reasons that the wave of post-2000 sentencing reform has had minimal impact on reducing national imprisonment rates
  • Explains why reforms must target the excessive sentences imposed on violent and sexual offenders, even though the members of these offender groups are considered "justifiably punished" by long prison terms in the public eye
  • Enables readers to understand why increased consideration for the well-being of offenders and their families is likely a prerequisite to the acceptance of more fundamental changes to the U.S. sentencing system
Author Info

Michael O'Hear is a professor of law at Marquette University Law School. He has published dozens of scholarly articles on sentencing and criminal procedure and is author of Sentencing Policies and Practices in Wisconsin. He blogs at



"This is a tour de force account of the swirling factors that account for both the dramatic increase in prison populations in the United States in the 1970–90s and the modest decreases since 2000. . . . Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty."Choice

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