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Did Longer Time Served Reduce Crime or Just Cost Money?

| June 19, 2012

During the past five years there has been extensive discussion in Georgia and nationally about the relationship between prison costs and public safety. Texas and Kansas were the earliest states to enact reforms in 2007.  Then the recession hit, inmate counts were viewed as budget busters and other states jumped aboard the reform wagon.  Georgia passed significant new law this year and is in the earliest stages of implementation that will take years to evaluate.

Most analysis here and nationally focused on the growth in state inmate populations during the past two decades.  That is because politically popular 1990s do-the-crime, do-the-time policies were enacted with faith in the idea that longer time served by bad people would reduce crime.

New research this month from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project has concluded, “Experts differ on precise figures, but they generally conclude that the increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s.”  States individually have to decide their own balance between some improvement and $10.4 billion in extra cost to state corrections systems.

What we know today – and it took almost two decades to figure this out – is a lot of people sent to prison were non-violent personal drug users who posed little threat to anyone else, or they were sick and needed medical help more than prison time. More states now understand they must decide whether drugs are a crime or an illness.

When you look closer at national data, inmate populations have sharply accelerated for longer than 30 years.  The country had 320,000 state prisoners in 1980, about 740,000 in 1990 and that more than doubled to 1.543 million over the next 20 years ending in 2010, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

You can go back farther and create an intriguing 1925 to 2010 comparison.  Back in the middle of the Roaring 20’s the country had fewer than 92,000 state prisoners and a population of 115 million.  If state prisoner and national populations had grown at identical percentage rates today we would have 1.945 billion people in the country.  We are very good at locking up people.

Pew’s new report, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” studied data from 35 states including Georgia.  Pew said time served by inmates released in 2009 was 36% longer than inmates released in 1990.   Longer time served had huge financial impacts on state budgets.  Pew says the extra cost in Georgia was $536 million.  You can see their calculations here.

“It certainly is understandable that penalties are raised when society or policy makers don’t feel penalties reflect the seriousness of the offense,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. “But most often that’s not been the driving factor.  It was a sense that stiffer penalties would be effective at reducing those crimes.”

Average time served for all crimes increased most in Florida, up 166% compared to the 35-state average of 36%.  Georgia was up 75% (sixth highest among 35 states) and North Carolina up 86% (third highest). In time served for violent crimes, Florida was up 137%, North Carolina up 55% (tied for sixth highest) and Georgia up 41% (11th highest) against a 37% average increase.

Drug sentence strategies and time served are an extreme conversation.  At one end you have personal users.  At the other end you have traffickers and manufacturers.  Pew compared time served by the most serious offenders.  Florida sentences were up 194%, Georgia was up 85% (fifth highest) and North Carolina up 38% (17th highest).  Drug sentences served in Tennessee actually decreased by 9% during the twenty-year cycle.

Florida time served for property crimes grew by 181%.  Georgia was fifth highest at 68%.  North Carolina’s increase was 20% and Tennessee sentences were 45% shorter.

Gelb said Pew’s research “reinforces the notion that state policy choices determine or drive the size and cost of state prison populations, not so much crime rates or broad demographic trends.  These numbers go up or down based on how policy makers respond to situations rather than forces that are largely out of their control.”

The Department of Corrections says Georgia had 54,373 inmates on June 8 this year; that is up from 52,478 last year.  Governor Nathan Deal signed a criminal justice reform law last month that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

Georgia prisons cost $1 billion a year; probation and parole services add another $400 million.  Alternative court programs for mental health and some but not all drug offenders and other changes are predicted to save the state $264 million over the next four years.  The belief is these changes can be made without compromising public safety.

Georgia criminal justice reform will extend beyond implementation of this year’s new law.  The state Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform will reconvene this summer. Governor Deal has said the council will be asked for juvenile justice and code recommendations that could result in the state’s first comprehensive rewrite of those laws in several decades.

Pew analyzed National Corrections Reporting Program data voluntarily submitted by the 35 states and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Click here to read the Pew summary.  Click here to read fact sheets on all 35 states.

This post also appears on the Georgia Public Policy Foundation’s Forum Blog.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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