Established in 1986, the Sentencing Project describes itself as a “source of criminal justice policy analysis, data, and program information” whose reports, publications, and staff “are relied upon by the public, policymakers and the media.”
The Sentencing Project identifies its priority issues as follows:
Incarceration: “Persons convicted of a crime today are far more likely to be sentenced to incarceration, and will spend a longer period in prison, than their counterparts in past decades.”
Sentencing Law and Policy: “Changes in sentencing law and policy, not increases in crime rates, explain most of the six-fold increase in the national prison population since the early 1970s. These changes have … increased the use of … ‘one size fits all’ mandatory and determinate sentences that allow for little consideration of individual characteristics. … The Sentencing Project [favors] more moderate lengths of sentence, increased use of alternatives to punishment.”
Felony Disenfranchisement: “Nationally, more than four million Americans are denied the right to vote as a result of laws that prohibit voting by felons or ex-felons. … This fundamental obstacle to participation in democratic life is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system … The Sentencing Project collaborates with leading civil rights and civil liberties organizations to encourage reconsideration of disenfranchisement policies.”
Racial Disparity: “Two-thirds of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities … These trends have been exacerbated by the impact of the ‘war on drugs,’ with three-fourths of all drug offenders being persons of color …”
Juveniles in Adult Criminal Courts: “… Racial disparity characterizes the decisions to prosecute children as adults. Adult sentences, imposed upon children, are unduly harsh — destroying the formative years of a young person’s life, and in the instance of lengthy sentences, the prospect of life outside a prison forever.”
Impact of Drug Policy: “Since 1980, the number of drug offenders in state prisons has increased thirteen-fold … An increasing body of research … indicates that treatment and diversion from prison demonstrate far better results in reducing drug abuse and drug-related crime.”
Women and the Criminal-Justice System: “Since 1980 the number of women in prison has increased at nearly double the rate for men. … [L]arge-scale women’s imprisonment has created an increasing number of children … who suffer from the loss of family ties.”
Collateral Consequences: “Since the early 1990s, an increasing number of laws and policies have been enacted that restrict persons with a felony conviction … from accessing many social benefits and economic opportunities. These include restrictions on employment, receipt of welfare benefits, access to public housing, and eligibility for student loans for higher education. … The Sentencing Project … [calls] attention to the need for reform.”
The Sentencing Project has been most focused on trying to repeal laws which prohibit convicted felons from voting in most states. The organization cites a 2002 survey conducted by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza, who concluded that “Democratic candidates would have received about 7 of every 10 votes cast by the felons and ex-felons in 14 of the last 15 U.S. Senate election years.” “By removing those with Democratic preferences from the pool of eligible voters,” the authors assert, “felon disenfranchisement has provided a small but clear advantage to Republican candidates in every presidential and senatorial election from 1972 to 2000.”
The Sentencing Project’s crusade to overturn the disenfranchisement laws is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The Sentencing Project receives taxpayer money through grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. It also receives funding from numerous foundations, including the Ford Foundation, the JEHT Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Open Society Institute (OSI) of George Soros and the Public Welfare Foundation. The aforementioned Uggen and Manza study was made possible by grants from the Open Society Institute.
Marc Mauer, Executive Director of the Sentencing Project, has written extensively in favor of repealing prisoner disenfranchisement laws, imposing shorter prison sentences, and seeking alternatives to incarceration for criminal offenders.