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

Jun 06, 2012

Over the past 40 years, criminal justice policy in the U.S. was shaped by the belief that the best way to protect the public was to put more people in prison. Offenders, the reasoning went, should spend longer and longer time behind bars.

Consequently, offenders have been spending more time in prison. According to a new study by Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project, the length of time served in prison has increased markedly over the last two decades. Prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36 percent longer, than offenders released in 1990.

Those extended prison sentences came at a price: prisoners released from incarceration in 2009 cost states $23,300 per offender--or a total of over $10 billion nationwide. More than half of that amount was for non-violent offenders.

The report, Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms, also found that time served for drug offenses and violent offenses grew at nearly the same pace from 1990 to 2009. Drug offenders served 36 percent longer in 2009 than those released in 1990, while violent offenders served 37 percent longer. Time served for inmates convicted of property crimes increased by 24 percent.

Almost all states increased length of stay over the last two decades, though that varied widely from state to state.  In Florida, for example, where time served rose most rapidly, prison terms grew by 166 percent and cost an extra $1.4 billion in 2009.

A companion analysis Pew conducted in partnership with external researchers found that many non-violent offenders in Florida, Maryland and Michigan could have served significantly shorter prison terms with little or no public safety consequences.

The report also summarizes recent public opinion polling that shows strong support nationwide for reducing time served for non-violent offenders.

Read the full report and state factsheets on the Pew Center on the States' website.

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