Expert Commentary

Pew report: The high cost, low return of longer prison terms

2012 Pew Center on the States report on incarceration rates in the United States, strategies and costs they impose, from 1990 to 2009.

Beginning in the 1970s, U.S. states enacted increasingly harsh laws in the name of “getting tough” on crime. Drug laws were strengthened, mandatory minimum sentences established and “three strikes” statutes enacted. Because of those policy shifts — along with some other, complex legal changes — the nation’s incarceration rate soared, and the United Sates continues to have the greatest number of prisoners of any country in the world.

According to a 2012 Pew Center on the States report, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” the severe penalties appear to have some of the desired effect: Up to one-third of the drop in violent crime in the 1990s may be attributable to higher incarceration rates, the report says. But at what cost? And would tightening laws reduce crime further, or have we reached the point of diminishing returns?

Based on National Corrections Reporting Program data from 35 states between 1990 and 2009, the Pew report provides a “state-level portrait of how time served has changed during the past 20 years, how it has impacted prison populations and costs, and how policy makers can adjust it to generate a better public safety return on taxpayer dollars.” The researchers used the term “length of stay” (LOS) to denote the average time individuals spend in prison.

Key study findings include:

  • The combined state and federal prison population has doubled over the past 20 years, from 739,980 in 1990 to 1,543,206 in 2010.
  • The “main mechanism states used to increase time served … was to require that [violent] offenders serve a larger percentage of their sentences.” In 1990, violent offenders served only 50% of their sentences; in 2009, they served 80% of their sentences.
  • Florida (166%), Virginia (91%), and North Carolina (86%) had the largest percentage increases in time served between 1990 and 2009. Illinois (25%), South Dakota (24%) and six additional states reduced time served during the same period.
  • Time served for the three main crime categories increased significantly over the period 1990 to 2009. “For drug crimes: 2.2 years, up from 1.6 years in 1990 (a 36% increase). For property crimes: 2.3 years, up from 1.8 years in 1990 (a 24% increase). For violent crimes: 5 years, up from 3.7 years in 1990 (a 37% increase).”
  • In 1990 the average LOS was 2.1 years. At a monthly cost of $2,593, the burden per prisoner to states was more than $65,000. By 2009 the average LOS increased to 2.9 years — which translates to an additional $23,333 for each inmate — for a total of nearly $89,000 per prisoner. This means that for all offenders released in 2009, states had spent an additional $10.4 billion to keep them incarcerated for that additional nine months.
  • “Annual state spending on corrections now tops $51 billion and prisons account for the vast majority of the cost, even though offenders on parole and probation dramatically outnumber those behind bars.”
  • Public opinion polls in 2012 showed that voters strongly support initiatives to reduce prison time for non-violent offenders who complete substance abuse, literacy or anti-recidivism programs (63%), demonstrate good behavior (55%) or are older or ill (50%). Voters supported updated initiatives to help keep violent offenders locked up (62%), to use the money saved to invest in treatment alternatives (61%) or to close budget deficits (45%).

The authors concluded that many nonviolent offenders could serve less time in prison, saving taxpayers’ money with few adverse societal affects. “There is a point when offenders become a low risk for release and more time served does not result in additional crimes prevented through either incapacitation or deterrence.”

A related 2011 study from Fordham Law School examines some of the more complex factors that have driven trends in the U.S. prison population over time.

Tags: municipal, crime, taxation, prisons

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