High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Term

The Pew Charitable Trusts
The Pew Charitable Trusts (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Brian Heller de Leon

A new report by the Pew Charitable Trusts shows that the length of time served in prison has increased nationally by 36% since 1990. This has translated into an average of nine additional months of incarceration per prisoner. This results in extra costs to states totaling more than $10.4 billion per year. The study found that over half of those additional costs were spent on non-violent offenders who posed minimal risks to public safety. Nationally, states spend over $51 billion

each year on incarceration.

The nation is in a state of mass incarceration with the average national prison population spiking more than 700% between 1972 and 2011. Further, in 2008 the combined federal-state- local inmate count reached 2.3 million, or one in 100 adults. This increased reliance on incarceration is not entirely reflective of offender behavior.

Crime rates have been decreasing rapidly since the 1990’s yet incarceration rates continue to climb. States like California have undergone massive “realignment” efforts to return non-violent offenders back to county supervision, with impressive although uneven results.

The Pew study notes,

“Criminologists 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. Research also has identified new offender supervision strategies and technologies that can help break the cycle of recidivism.”

In a time of severe budget cuts where K-12 class sizes are increasing and kids are being pushed off health-care rolls, why do states continue to rely on costly incarceration strategies that clearly show diminished benefit over time?

The negative consequences of excessive lengths of stay are not only prevalent in the adult offender population. A May 5th CJCJ blog highlighted a recent OJJDP study that found that, “Long-term juvenile incarceration does not decrease reoffending, and may actually increase recidivism rates for lower-level youth offenders.”  Recent steps taken by Governor Brown and the California legislature include to reduce the age of jurisdiction at the state’s youth correctional facilities, Division of Juvenile Facilities (DJF) from 25 to 23, and to eliminate a disciplinary practice known as “time-adds”. Both of these actions will reduce youth offenders stay in the state system, which is currently longer than most states.

Used for disciplinary purposes on juvenile offenders (although research has shown they are ineffective for discipline), time-adds on average place an additional 22% on the average length of stay for juvenile wards in DJF. The California Legislature passed time-add elimination with Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner as AB 999 a few years ago, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger under pressure from law enforcement associations. Now, Governor Brown has a chance to get it right.

Measures such as time-add elimination and reducing the age of jurisdiction will help mitigate the excessive lengths of stay in DJF, which are more than three times the national average. Governor Brown has a chance to take a small step this year in better aligning juvenile corrections in California with what research indicates are best practices.

The public is looking for smart, cost-effective solutions that actually promote long-term public safety. As these studies make clear, increased incarceration rates and lengths of stay across the country have made only minimal contributions to public safety while exacerbating the current fiscal crisis with prison overspending. Our elected leaders need to take courageous steps in following the evidence and resisting the old-guard law enforcement lobby in our statehouses and in the nation’s Capitol.


Brian Heller de Leon is the Policy and Government Outreach Coordinator for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, where this article was originally published. He has a background in community organizing, police-community relations, and the implementation of national best-practice strategies for youth and gang violence reduction.


Via @ California Progress Report



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