Reducing prison sentences for inmates isn't something lawmakers generally like to do. But for many non-violent offenders, according to a new Pew report, it can be an effective method for cutting costs - and it might even be a popular option among voters.
Prison sentences in the U.S. have increased an average of nine months since 1990, according to the report, entitled Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms, released earlier this month. Those longer prison terms mean that per-inmate costs have gone up an average of $23,000. Over time, those costs add up: In Florida, for example, the average inmate's prison term rose 166 percent from 1990 to 2009, costing the state an extra $1.4 billion.
And the increased sentences may not even help reduce crime. "For a number of non-violent offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer reduces crime or keeps them from reoffending," says Adam Gelb, the director of the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project, which published the report. Furthermore, Gelb notes that states over the past 20 years have become much more adept at identifying this group of non-violent, low-risk offenders.
It's important to note the disparity between crime rates and recidivism rates, says Gelb: Not only did the report find that longer sentences don't reduce recidivism. The longer terms don't even reduce overall crime rates for non-violent offenders. "They could have served three or six or nine -- or in some cases 24 -- months less than they did, with no reduction in incapacitation effect," says Gelb. "So that extra time served was all cost, no benefit."
The Pew report echoes findings from another recently released study from the American Civil Liberties Union, which focused on the additional cost necessary to hold elderly inmates, and the potential savings available in increasing the availability of parole for these inmates.
In order to lower the costs of these longer prison terms, states have tried a variety of strategies, from redefining certain offenses to reducing the amount of time a sentence must be served before parole can be considered. However, according to the Pew report, even just repealing minimum sentencing requirements for drug offenders - leaving such decisions up to the courts - can save millions. Michigan, for instance, repealed its mandatory drug sentencing requirements in 2002, and saw $41 million in savings the first year.
The money that's saved could be used to strengthen alternatives to incarceration, which, Gelb says, could actually prove more effective in reducing crime rates. In that sense, he says, reducing prison terms could have not only "a 'little to no' impact on public safety, but in this case it would have a positive impact."
Public opinion polls have indicated that a large majority of the population would be in favor of such an approach. In a Pew poll, 84 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement that money spent on locking up low-risk, non-violent inmates should be shifted to alternative corrections programs. Even among Republicans, who typically are less likely to agree with such a sentiment, 77 percent thought that the money should be shifted. "The public is saying, 'We don't care if these low-risk offenders are getting out in June or July,'" says Gelb, "'what we want is for the revolving door to stop.'"