In recent years, national discussions of criminal-justice reform have largely revolved around non-violent drug-related convictions—as illustrated by the hundreds of federal inmates that Barack Obama granted clemency to at the end of his second term. In a sense, these offenders are low-hanging fruit: They are arguably the most politically palatable inmate demographic, and many lawmakers can champion their cause with limited risk.

The opposite is true for violent offenders, whose release from prison has been taboo since at least the 1988 presidential campaign. Willie Horton, the convicted murderer who committed a series of violent crimes while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison in 1986, was featured in an ad that year painting Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis as soft-on-crime. Dukakis, who as Massachusetts governor had endorsed the furlough program, lost the election, relegating violent offenders to the fringes of public debate for the next three decades.

Yet Marc Morjé Howard, the director of Georgetown University’s Prison and Justice Initiative, argues that meaningful reform hinges on this group. In his recently published book, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism, Howard makes the case that reducing prison time for those convicted of violence would curb mass incarceration without increasing threats to public safety. He alleges that parole boards full of political appointees, who worry they’ll risk their jobs if they grant freedom to the wrong person, keep thousands of rehabilitated inmates stuck in prison.

I spoke with Howard about the nature of violent crime, the depoliticization of parole boards, and how America’s treatment of prisoners is different from that of European countries. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Maura Ewing: What would happen if people who have been convicted of violent crimes were more easily let out of prison?

Marc Morjé Howard: First off, one thing to make clear is that I’m not in any way talking about letting out ax murderers, or serial rapists, or people who are currently being violent in prison. I’m talking about formerly violent offenders. I’m talking about people who may have been dangerous in the past, [but] who are no longer a threat to public safety. People who have committed even very bad crimes are capable of reform and are deserving of a second chance after they have served their time.  

I do think sentencing is too severe in this country. We give people these crazy sentences, in many cases, of longer than the natural life span. When they’ve reached the minimum threshold of their sentence—say, 25 years of a 25-to-life sentence—I think we should be evaluating how they’ve changed and how they’ve improved. Otherwise, what’s the point of having parole at all?

Ewing: Would reducing the number of incarcerated people who were convicted of violent crimes, then, require a reform of parole boards, whose members are usually chosen by governors? Or sentencing guidelines?

Howard: It would require reforms of parole boards and parole procedures. I think they should be depoliticized. I think they should be taken out of a political electoral context, where there are direct consequences for political officials if—heaven forbid, but it will happen—there is a mistake and a person gets out who commits another crime. The mentality becomes: “Why take that chance? Let’s just keep everybody locked up.” When to parole someone should be a judicial decision, with input from psychologists and social workers. There should be an individual assessment of each person’s readiness to succeed when they get out.

In the last five or so years, it has become very conventional—and I think widely accepted across the political spectrum—to say non-violent drug offenders don’t deserve these 15-year, or 25-year, or life sentences. But I think we need to go further than that and think about the unfairness of people stuck [in prison] in perpetuity because of our fear to confront a difficult question: “Can people change?”

Most people don’t realize how many crimes are committed by young stupid men or boys. There is a lot of brain science emerging that shows how the prefrontal cortex forms—people calm down as they age, and don’t go back to [criminal] life if they have the opportunity.

Ewing: Would depoliticizing parole boards mitigate the “Willie Horton effect”?

Howard: I think that that lesson, unfortunately, hangs over every single political official and every parole-board member. That’s very unfortunate because there are so many success stories that all get swept away under this fear factor.

[But changing parole for violent offenders] alone won’t solve all the problems. I think it should be done in conjunction with a new approach to prison itself. The purpose of prison, and the activities and programs that are made available to people in prisons, should be to [facilitate] transformation and change, [rather than the] mindless warehousing done currently in most facilities in the U.S.

Ewing: Do you think that releasing more people convicted of violent crimes is politically feasible under the current presidential administration, which has advocated for tougher sentencing for even non-violent drug offenders?

Howard: I do, because most of it happens at the state level, [where the majority of prisoners are incarcerated]. State prisons are where the action really is.

France has a good model for depoliticized parole. During my research, I got to go to a prison there and witness proceedings where prisoners who had served 50 percent of their time were essentially making the case for why they should have their sentences reduced, based on the progress that they made in prison. Judges are very active in this process.

I asked one judge, “What happens if you make the call that a person is ready, but then the person commits another crime? Are you personally attacked?” He said, “Absolutely not.” It’s a meritocracy where judges earn their appointment based on their judicial qualifications. They are not making decisions based on personal career fears, but rather thinking in terms of, “Is this person ready?” I think that’s a much more productive way of doing it.

Ewing: In your book, you compared the criminal-justice systems of the United States, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Why those countries?

Howard: I wanted to pick countries that were advanced, industrialized democracies. I picked countries in Europe at various points on the spectrum of harshness. The U.K. is considered on the harsher end within Europe. France is in the middle, though some of the prisons in France are pretty decrepit. The German model is more on the progressive side.

Ewing: Does one of the countries have a particularly effective parole system? Or way of determining when someone is rehabilitated?

Howard: Germany has the best, and then France next. In both countries, there is an emphasis on rehabilitation. The idea is the person was sent to this prison and [the overseers’] job is to try to make this person ready to come out, whether that’s in a year, five years, 20 years. It’s a constant process of monitoring, evaluation, and providing education and vocational-skills opportunities.

When [inmates] get close to that release point, [the prisons] start giving them furloughs to be ready to reenter society. Inmates are eligible to apply for a reduction in sentence when they pass a certain threshold of time served. The idea is to give them an incentive to behave well in prison, an incentive to reform—things that we don’t do in this country at all.

Ewing: Do you think there are elements from any of these models that could be implemented here?

Howard: For one, we could improve prison education. The RAND Corporation did a major study in 2013 on the effect of prison education, which found that education contributed to a 43 percent decline in recidivism—even when someone didn’t get a degree, but was just getting higher education beyond a GED, which is the minimum that prisons must provide. RAND estimated that every dollar spent now on prison education will save four to five dollars in terms of cost of future incarceration.

Also, most European countries allow conjugal visits, where a spouse or loved one can stay overnight or for the weekend. American prisons’ visiting hours are very limited. Prisons are built in remote places where many people can't even get to, [where] there is no public transportation. The cost of making phone calls from prison is exorbitant.

Other countries try to support the maintenance of those ties because they know they are going to be so crucial when the person gets out. And we have policies that essentially rupture them.