Longer Prison Terms Costs States Millions
(08/01/2012)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Pew Center on the States has recently published new findings about the longer amount of time inmates are serving behind bars, and the affects of the increase.

The recent report by Pew, Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms, addresses the increasingly high number of inmates in the country’s correctional system today and the amount of money states are spending for an inmate’s extended stay.

In 2008, the combined federal-state-local inmate count reached 2.3 million, or one in 100 adults, according to the Pew report. The report also noted that 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.

So what’s causing more and more inmates to be incarcerated for longer amounts of time? The Pew report found that inmates are staying longer due to both front-end sentencing and back-end release policies that vary from state-to-state. These laws that are sending or keeping inmates incarcerated longer have been receiving attention in the past five years and have prompted lawmakers in several states to reform certain laws that were costing states millions.

In Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Montana, South Carolina and Washington lawmakers are raising the threshold dollar amount required to trigger certain felony property crime classifications, according to the report.

States like Colorado, Arkansas and Kentucky are revising drug offense classification in the criminal code to ensure the most serious offenders receive the most severe penalties, while in Delaware, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and New York lawmakers are rolling back mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Other reforms include increasing opportunities to earn reductions in time served by completing prison-based programs. States adopting this practice include Colorado, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Some, like Mississippi and South Carolina, are even revising eligibility standards for parole consideration to get inmates out of custody faster.

Classifying Inmates

The report broke down the length of stay for inmates into three specific categories — those serving time for violent crimes, drug offenses and property offenses.

When looking at violent offenders, the study showed that state policy changes were responsible for many of the shifts in the length of time served by inmates. Violent inmates released in 2009 from the states who submitted their data served almost 80 percent of their sentences, up from about 50 percent in 1990, according to the report. The report also found that violent offenders entering or remaining in prison in 2009 could expect to spend about 7.1 years in custody, more than two years longer than the average length of stay for violent criminals released in that year.

Property offenders are also seeing more time in correctional facilities, as state laws are requiring more offenses be punishable by incarceration in 2009 than in 1990. An inmate’s average time served in 1990 was 1.8 years, whereas in 2009 an inmate’s average time for a property offense was 2.3 years. The slight increase amounts to an additional $1.8 billion nationwide for states to house these inmates, according to the report.

Drug offenders have seen an increase in time served as well, with Arkansas having the largest increase since 1990 with a length of stay increase of 122 percent. Although lawmakers are looking to reform sentencing time for some drug offences, many states still experienced an increase of inmates serving time for drug offenses from 1990 to 2009.

Factors Driving Length of Stay

States that have a large prison population that is largely comprised of serious violent offenders will see a longer length of stay for inmates in that particular state. The population will stay longer than if the prison population consists of mainly drug and property offenders.

States legislatures are also responsible for creating and approving sentencing policies. Many states vary in their sentencing guidelines; the same crime has a year sentence in one state but several years in another state.

U.S. Congress has also played a role at the state level by creating incentives for certain types of sentencing policies, according to the report. Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 that provided federal Violent-Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing grants to states that require violent offenders serve 85 percent of their sentences. While there is evidence suggesting that states would have enacted such policies without federal intervention, these grants helped accelerate prison expansion, according to the report.

States like California have “three strikes” laws that are putting more offenders in custody. Prosecutors can choose whether or not to charge certain offenses as a “strike” and make an offender eligible for prosecution under the law.

Currently, the state houses about 8,500 third strikers who have sentences of 25 years to life and can be released only

by the parole board, according to the report.

“I think if you had a list of all the potential factors that could drive up length of stay in prison, California would have a check by every one of them,” Joan Petersilia, co-director at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said in the report.

Solutions to Think About

Researchers cannot predict future behavior with perfect accuracy, but they can create trajectories of individual offending behavior that will closely resemble what individuals might have done had they not been incarcerated, according to the report.

Many members of law enforcement, and especially the community, are concerned about releasing inmates early from a correctional facility. So, when looking at where to make sentencing reforms, most states focus on those serving time for non-violent offenses.

The model trajectories are specialized to each individual offender, as no offender is the same. Instead of comparing similarly situated offenders, this approach uses criminal-history-based trajectories for offenders in each release cohort as a counterfactual to predict what they would have done had they not been incarcerated, or had they been incarcerated for a shorter period of time, according to the report.

Pew compiled the statistics from three states: Maryland, Michigan and Florida. The study found that a large portion of the state prison populations could have been released sooner with no impact on public safety.

Looking at only non-violent offenders, 14 percent of the Florida release cohort, 18 percent of the Maryland cohort and 24 percent of the Michigan cohort could have been safely released after serving between three months and two years less time behind bars, according to the report.

Top Five States Holding Inmates Longer

Florida

• The average offender released in 2009 served three years in custody,  — 166 percent more than the average offender released in 1990 — costing the state a total of $1.4 billion.

Virginia

• The average offender released in 2009 served 3.3 years in custody,  — 91 percent more than the average offender released in 1990 — costing the state a total of $518.8 million.

North Carolina

• The average offender released in 2009 served 2.7 years in custody,  — 86 percent more than the average offender released in 1990 — costing the state $415.8 million.

Oklahoma

• The average offender released in 2009 served 3.1 years in custody,  — 83 percent more than the average offender released in 1990 — costing the state $203.9 million.

Michigan

• The average offender released in 2009 served 4.3 years in custody, — 79 percent more than the average offender released in 1990 — costing the state $471.9 million.

Source: Pew Report: Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms. Pew analysis of the National Corrections Reporting Program data (2012).

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