Sentencing Project

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The Sentencing Project
Abbreviation TSP
Formation 1986
Purpose "The Sentencing Project is dedicated to changing the way Americans think about crime and punishment."
Headquarters Washington, District of Columbia
Executive Director
Marc Mauer

Established as a national non-profit 501(c)3 organization in 1986, The Sentencing Project works for a fair and effective U.S. criminal justice system by promoting change in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

The Sentencing Project was founded to provide defense lawyers with sentencing advocacy training and to reduce the reliance on incarceration. Since that time, The Sentencing Project has become a leader in the effort to bring national attention to disturbing trends and inequities in the criminal justice system with a successful formula that includes the publication of groundbreaking research, aggressive media campaigns strategic advocacy for policy reform.


The Sentencing Project grew out of pilot programs established by Malcolm C. Young in the early 1980s. In 1981, Young became director of a project of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) designed to establish defense-based sentencing advocacy programs. These programs worked with defense attorneys to provide judges with sentencing proposals that contained an assessment of the defendant’s social history and an individualized sentencing plan that was responsive to the needs of both victims and offenders. The NLADA project successfully developed sentencing advocacy programs in six cities over the next several years. In 1984, the project came under the sponsorship of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, which continued until 1986.[1]

In 1986, Young incorporated The Sentencing Project as an independent organization to continue the program training and development work. Through the mid-1990s The Sentencing Project provided training and technical assistance in sentencing advocacy to programs in more than 20 states. Beginning in the late 1980s, The Sentencing Project became engaged in research and public education on a broad range of criminal justice policy issues. The organization is now considered a premier source of information and analysis, and serves as a resource for policymakers, academics, advocacy organizations, and media. The advocacy campaigns of The Sentencing Project have successfully contributed to significant sentencing and drug policy reforms at both the federal and state level. In 2005, long-time assistant director Marc Mauer became the executive director of The Sentencing Project.


Training and Program Development The Sentencing Project provided technical assistance in program development and skills training for hundreds of staff engaged in defense-based sentencing advocacy for a period of 15 years beginning in 1986. This included annual conferences on sentencing advocacy beginning in 1989 and the formation of the National Association of Sentencing Advocates (NASA) in 1992. NASA functioned under the auspices of The Sentencing Project and served as a professional leadership and development association of staff engaged in sentencing advocacy and death penalty mitigation programs.[2]

Research and Public Education The Sentencing Project has produced a broad range of policy reports that have documented issues and trends in the U.S. justice system, and which have helped to shape public policy debate on key issues. These have included:

  • Young Black Men and the Criminal Justice System: A Growing National Problem (1990) – a report that documented that nearly one in four African American males in the age group 20-29 was under some form of criminal justice supervision[3]
  • Americans Behind Bars: A Comparison of International Rates of Incarceration (1991) – a report that showed that the United States had become the world leader in its use of incarceration[4]
  • Young Black Americans and the Criminal Justice System: Five Years Later (1995) – a report demonstrating that the proportion of African American males ages 20-29 under criminal justice supervision was approaching one in three[5]
  • Losing the Vote: The Impact of Felony Disenfranchisement Laws in the United States (with Human Rights Watch, 1998) – a national assessment finding that four million Americans were prohibited from voting due to a current or previous felony conviction[6]
  • Reducing Racial Disparity in the Criminal Justice System: A Manual for Practitioners and Policymakers – a guide to analyzing and responding to racial disparities at each stage of the criminal justice process[7]
  • Distorted Priorities: Drug Offenders in State Prisons (2002) – an analysis demonstrating that a majority of drug offenders in state prisons had no history of violence and were not high-level players in the drug trade[8]
  • No Exit: The Expanding Use of Life Sentences in America (2009) – a report finding that one of every eleven persons in prison was serving a life sentence, more than 140,000 individuals[9]
  • The Lives of Juvenile Lifers: Findings from a National Survey (2012) – the first national survey of such persons, documenting high rates of social disadvantage and racial disparities in the imposition of these punishments[10]

The Sentencing Project also produces a range of briefing papers, fact sheets, and policy analyses on a regular basis. An annual report, The State of Sentencing, provides an overview of legislative measures adopted around the nation, and staff frequently contribute to academic and professional journals as well.[11]

Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project, has published two books. Race to Incarcerate, first published in 1999, traces the evolution of the explosion in the prison population in recent decades, and was a semi-finalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. A second edition was published in 2006, and a graphic novel version was published in 2013.[12] With co-editor Meda Chesney-Lind, Mauer also published Invisible Punishment: The Collateral Consequences of Mass Imprisonment (2002), a collection of essays that examine the effects of imprisonment on families and communities.[13]

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of The Sentencing Project in 2011, the organization published a collection of essays, To Build a Better Criminal Justice System: 25 Experts Envision the Next 25 Years of Reform. The publication features contributions from leading scholars, practitioners, and reform advocates.[14]


The Sentencing Project has long been engaged in advocating for criminal justice and juvenile justice reform, including legislative advocacy, public education, and engagement with practitioners. At the federal level, highlights have included contributing to the adoption of the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses, and changes to the federal sentencing guidelines which reduced crack cocaine offense levels as well. Staff of The Sentencing Project have are frequently invited to testify before Congress, the United States Sentencing Commission, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and other agencies.

In the area of juvenile justice The Sentencing Project has been engaged in efforts to strengthen and enhance the mandate of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, including approaches to reducing racial disparity in detention. The organization has also played a leading role in campaigns to end the practice of sentencing juveniles to life without parole, and submitted an amicus brief which was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2010 decision in Graham v. Florida that barred such penalties in non-homicide offenses.[15]

Support for reform at the state level has included engagement with policymakers and reform organizations on issues including sentencing policy, racial disparity, felony disenfranchisement, and juvenile justice. As documented by The Sentencing Project in Expanding the Vote: State Felony Disenfranchisement Reform, 1997-2010, 23 states enacted reforms to their disenfranchisement policies and practices between 1997 – 2010.[16] The organization has also championed the concept of racial impact statements that can allow policymakers to project any undue racial effects of proposed sentencing legislation. In 2008, the states of Connecticut and Iowa each adopted such legislation, and in 2013, Oregon did so as well.[17]


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