Over the last two decades, the average length of stay for inmates in U.S. prisons has increased, costing taxpayers billions of dollars with little to show for the extra expense needed to keep offenders behind bars, a research center reports.
A study by the Pew Center on the States found there was a spike of more than 700 percent in the U.S. prison population from 1972 to 2011.
“Longer prison terms have been a key driver of prison populations and cost,” the study said.
“Nationally, the fastest period of growth in time served came between 1995 and 2000. In that period, length of stay rose 28 percent, compared with less than 5 percent in the five-year periods before and after,” Pew reported.
The Pew Center’s research found that state spending amounts to more than $51 billion annually on corrections, with prisons accounting for the majority of this rising price tag.
Across the nation, these developments, combined with tight state budgets have prompted a significant shift toward alternatives to prison for lower-level offenders, the report found. “Criminologist and policy makers increasingly agree that we have reached a ‘tipping point’ with incarceration, where additional imprisonment will have little if any effect on crime.”
“Longer prison terms have been a key driver of prison populations and cost”
The report said additional time in prison may result in a “declining deterrent effect,” and make the offender more likely to commit new crimes after release. This is “the foundation of the argument that prisons are ‘schools of crime.’”
Both the number of offenders sent to prison and the length of incarceration are “principal forces” on the rise and fall of prison populations, Pew reported.
According to the study, inmates who paroled in 2009 had an average prison time of nearly three years, nine months longer than inmates paroled in 1990, this amounts to a 36 percent increase in time served over the course of a decade.
“The cost of that extra nine months totals an average of $23,300 per offender,” Pew reported.
According to Pew, the increase in time was “remarkably similar across crime types.”
Drug crimes increased to 2.2 years, up from 1.6 years in 1990 – a 36 percent increase.
Property crimes increased to 2.3 years, up from 1.8 years in 1990 – a 24 percent increase.
Violent crimes increased 5.0 years, up from 3.7 years in 1990, which is a 37 percent increase.
“This cohort cost $4.7 billion more than had they served the 1990 average,” Pew said.
In California, the average length of stay for all crimes was 1.9 years for those paroled in 1990. By 2009, that number jumped to 2.9 years, an increase of 51 percent – 15 percent above the national average of 36 percent, it was reported.
For violent offenders in California the overall length of stay jumped to 63 percent, the Pew study reported.
“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,” said Joan Petersilia, co-director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center.
The Pew study said there is little or no evidence suggesting longer periods of incarceration prevents additional crime for a significant number of offenders.
“A significant proportion of non-violent offenders who were released in 2004 could have served shorter prison terms without impacting public safety,” Pew reported.
The study said California has been struggling for a long time to provide adequate rehabilitation and work programs for its prison population as a way for eligible participants to earn a reduction in their time served.
“One study found that for offenders released (in California) in 2006, half had not attended a single rehabilitation program or work assignment while behind bars,” Pew reported. California has since recommitted to rehabilitation and is investing in increasing the programs offered to inmates, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation press office.
The Pew study said those who make policy in the three branches of government could modify incarceration time by adjusting both “the front-end (sentencing), and back-end (release) policy decisions.”
“Decisions about how to charge a defendant after arrest and booking can have a profound impact on future length of stay in prison. In most instances, prosecutors have significant discretion in determining which charges to file,” the Pew study said.
The study said some states have implemented reforms including raising the dollar amount on property crimes that trigger certain felonies, revising drug offense classifications, scaling back mandatory minimums, increasing the ability to earn sentence reductions and revising eligibility standards for parole.
The study concluded that long-term sentences are “not the best way to spend public dollars and protect public safety.”