Crime & Safety

S⁠t⁠reng⁠t⁠hen sen⁠t⁠ences for repea⁠t⁠ and v⁠i⁠olen⁠t⁠ offenders

By: Josh Crawford / July 5, 2023

Josh Crawford


Crime & Safety

July 5, 2023

Around 5:00 p.m. on May 22, 2023, Scott County Kentucky Sheriff’s Deputy Caleb Conley made a traffic stop on Interstate 75 near Georgetown, Kentucky. The man he stopped was Steven Sheangshang, who police were looking for in connection to a string of car and garage robberies. The suspect quickly turned violent, and Sheangshang is accused of shooting and killing Conley.

Conley’s death has shaken Kentucky, especially given the fact that it was preventable. Sheangshang has a lengthy criminal record that includes a laundry list of previous violent convictions including robbery, assault, resisting arrest and firing a weapon at police. 

As one local news station put it “45-year-old Steven Sheangshang has been in trouble with the law nearly every year of his adult life.” So, why was he on the street? 

Sheangshang isn’t an anomaly, though. Take, for example, the sentencing last year of two gang members in Durham, North Carolina, for the murder of 9-year-old Z’yon Person. One of the two convicts is also a suspect in a 2019 drive-by shooting that injured a 13-year-old girl. And in Portland, Oregon, a report released by the mayor’s office found the average homicide suspect had six prior arrests in the city, while the average shooting suspect had eight. 

Offenders like these drive violence and crime in most communities. What’s known as “the law of crime concentration” suggests a relatively small percentage of criminal offenders make up a majority of all criminal offenses. Empirical studies routinely find that five to 20% of repeat criminals commit a disproportionate number of the worst and most violent offenses.

These are the people who belong in prison. Studies also find strong support across demographics and cultures for punishment that fits the crime. These studies find, in part, that there is near-universal agreement on which crimes warrant more punishment and which crimes deserve less.

That strong support for real punishment translates to real crime reduction. Despite widespread claims to the contrary, the data shows longer prison sentences generally reduce crime. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but the public safety benefits of longer sentences for violent and repeat offenders are clear. 

A 2020 study of former federal prisoners found longer prison sentences reduced recidivism – especially at and after the 120-month-sentence mark. In fact, the odds of recidivism were 29% lower for federal offenders sentenced to more than 120 months of incarceration compared to a matched group of federal offenders receiving shorter sentences. 

One of the most effective ways to make sure this is applied correctly is to utilize sentence enhancements, rather than simply raising mandatory minimums. Studies of enhancement for repeat offending and use of a firearm have shown positive crime-reduction effects as a result.

The reverse is also true. One study examining a set of mass commutations in France found that large-scale sentence reductions increase recidivism and, therefore, are not a cost-effective way to reduce crime or incarceration. More recently, a study that examined the impact of de-prosecution (when prosecutors choose not to prosecute despite having enough evidence to convict) in Philadelphia found a statistically significant increase of 74.79 homicides per year in Philadelphia – because of the policy change. 

Unlike other policy areas, bad criminal justice policy can have direct life-or-death consequences. This means policymakers must undo some bad policy decisions that have been made recently while being proactive in pursuing a pro-public safety agenda. By repealing “do not prosecute” memos, strengthening sentences for violent offenders and restoring three-strikes laws, policymakers can take important steps toward better protecting the public.