A new Pew Center on the States report shows that the time a person served in prison rose significantly over the last two decades. In 2009, for example, Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project found that inmates served an extra nine months behind bars, 36 percent longer than the average time served in 1990. At an average cost of $23,300 per inmate in 2009, the extra time served cost states over $10 billion dollars. The study shows that over 50 percent of those who were locked up did not commit a violent crime. Florida was at the top of the list for prison time served in 2009 with a 136 percent increase.
The report, Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms, “…is based on National Corrections Reporting Program data from 35 states that was collected and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The reporting states covered 89 percent of the inmates released in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available. States not included in the study had not reported sufficient data over the 1990-2009 study period.
Highlights from the report, which offers state-by-state analysis for all of the 35 states that provided sufficient data, include:
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.
Time served rose most rapidly in Florida, where terms grew by 166 percent and cost an extra $1.4 billion in 2009. Prison terms increased in Virginia by 91 percent, North Carolina (86 percent), Oklahoma (83 percent), Michigan (79 percent), and Georgia (75 percent). Eight states reduced their overall time served, including Illinois (25 percent) and South Dakota (24 percent).
Among prisoners released in 2009 from the reporting states, Michigan had the longest overall average time served, at 4.3 years, followed by Pennsylvania (3.8 years). South Dakota had the shortest average time served at 1.3 years, followed by Tennessee (1.9 years). The national average time served was 2.9 years.
A companion analysis Pew conducted in partnership with external researchers identified the public safety impact of longer prison terms, using data about non-violent offenders released in 2004 from Florida, Maryland, and Michigan. The study revealed that many of those non-violent offenders in each state could have served prison terms between three months and two years shorter with little or no public safety consequences: 14 percent of all offenders released in Florida, 18 percent in Maryland, and 24 percent in Michigan.
Speaking on the myth that longer prison sentences are necessary to reduce crime and increase public safety, Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project, stated, “Taxpayers, today more than ever, want their dollars to produce the best possible public safety results. The idea behind longer prison terms is that they will cut crime and recidivism. But for a large number of lower-risk offenders, that just isn’t the case. There’s a high cost and little to no crime control benefit.”
Voters seem to agree with Gelb, at least the ones who took part in a national poll in January 2012. That poll’s results mimic other polls taken in Georgia, Missouri and Oregon, where the majority of responders believe that sentencing time for non-violent offenders should be reduced.
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The study also relates the steps that state officials have taken to “reverse overall growth trends”:
Reclassifying offenses or raising dollar thresholds and drug quantities required to trigger stiffer penalties. (Alabama, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Montana, South Carolina, Washington)
Expanding opportunities for inmates to earn time off of their sentences by completing programs. (Colorado, Kansas, South Carolina, Pennsylvania)
Reducing the percentage of sentences that must be served before inmates are eligible for parole. (Georgia, Mississippi)