Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms

The Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project released a report today examining the increasing longevity of prison terms. In the past, the basic justification for longer terms was the expectation that they would deter more crime and keep dangerous people out of society longer. Time and extensive research, however, have led many to question that logic, and the Pew report concludes that for many lower level and lower risk offenders, long prison terms have a high cost and a low return. These offenders and society at large may benefit from the adoption of alternative approaches that produce lower recidivism rates at lower costs.

From the report:

According to Pew’s analysis of state data reported to the federal government, offenders released in 2009 served an average of almost three years in custody, nine months or 36 percent longer than offenders released in 1990. The cost of that extra nine months totals an average of $23,300 per offender. When multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of inmates released each year, the financial impact of longer length of stay is considerable. For offenders released from their original commitment in 2009 alone, the additional time behind bars cost states over $10 billion, with more than half of this cost attributable to nonviolent offenders.

The report also showed that times served for various types of crimes increased at similar rates. From 1990-2009, drug offenders served 36 percent longer terms, property crime offenders served 24 percent longer terms, and violent crime offenders served 37 percent longer terms. The report notes that “external researchers using data from three states—Florida, Maryland, and Michigan—found that a significant proportion of nonviolent offenders who were released in 2004 could have served shorter prison terms without impacting public safety.”

The implication of this is clear. Millions, possibly billions of dollars can be saved with little harm to the public. When the benefits so clearly outweigh the costs, states must consider reducing time served for low-risk, non-violent offenders. Recent public opinion polling likewise shows strong nationwide support for such reforms.

A full version of the report, Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms, can be found here.

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