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

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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

    Writer: | Last updated: August 27, 2012

    Citation: “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” Pew Center on the States, Public Safety Performance Project, June 2012.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related Pottsville Republican article titled "County Prison Board Mulls Long-Term Solution for Overcrowding."

    1. What key insights from the journal article should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full Pew Center on the States report titled “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms.”

    1. What are the report's key technical term(s)? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the report’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the report’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the report's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the report's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the report.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the report. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the report but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the report alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the report’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the report and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the report. What combination of report findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the report. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the report’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the report’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the report in context?
    4. How could the report be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the report be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the report come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the report?