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Cutting Prison Time Doesn’t Reduce Recidivism

Posted by Joseph Tully | Nov 28, 2018


We send people to prison to punish them and hopefully have them learn their lesson. But is there a limit to the cost-benefit ratio when it comes to locking people up? According to a new study, reducing the average federal prisoner's length of stay by less than one year could save taxpayers millions of dollars with no increase in recidivism rates. For the average prisoner, such a reduction involves approximately 19 percent of their time.

This new study was completed by Abt Associates, a company providing research, consulting, and technical assistance in the fields of social policy. It was conducted under a cooperative agreement with the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Federal Justice Statistics Program. The study followed U.S. citizens convicted of serious offenses who were sentenced under 1999 to 2014 federal sentencing guidelines.

An Effective Method of Reducing the Prison Population

According to the study, reducing the federal prison population's average length of stay by 7.5 months would save the Bureau over 33,000 Prison beds, once the inmate populations stabilized. Savings would come from both daily costs, such as feeding prisoners, and fixed costs, including maintenance and administration.

This method of reducing the prison population is more effective than other common methodologies, such as putting lower-level offenders on probation rather than incarcerating them. Reducing the length of stay across the board can affect most of the most the total prison population whereas low-level offenders who have been diverted from incarceration via probation are a small fraction of the total system, according to the researchers.

The Length of Stay Effects

The study shows that the effect of reducing the length of stay on the recidivism rate doesn't vary according to common factors such as the seriousness of the offense, the inmate's criminal history, or an inmates' sex, race, or educational level. It is an across-the-board reduction.

Trimming Social Costs

While there are monetary considerations regarding a lower incarceration rate, such a move would also substantially trim the social costs of mass incarceration. The longtime loss of a parent to prison affects a children's development, both socially and intellectually. The longer a person is in jail, the more likely they are to lose the skills that may help them become a productive member of society and maintain employment. Without employment, the inmate's family may lose not only income but access to health care and other types of support. On a broader level, inmates lose the right to vote, and they are not counted for U.S. Census purposes in their residential neighborhood.

This affects entire communities as many forms of funding are based on population, as is political representation. When prisoners receive shorter terms, both their personal lives and communities benefit.

Other Studies and Recidivism

Other recent studies on recidivism do not correlate exactly with Abt Associates findings, but the State of Wisconsin's Department of Corrections' Recidivism after Release from Prison, published in 2016, shows that recidivism rates have fallen dramatically over the past quarter-century. Since 1990, three-year recidivism rates have dropped by 27.2 percent, and prices have since become stable.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Corrections study, the lowest recidivism rates were among those inmates who had been incarcerated for more than five years. This study found that those incarcerated for property offenses had a higher recidivism rate than those convicted of violent crimes. In my experience, property crimes are usually associated with drug addiction, so that might be an explanation as to why those arrested for property crimes have a high recidivism rate – addicts will steal to buy drugs.

The difference between black and white recidivists was nearly equal, with black inmate recidivism rates only 1 percent higher than those for white inmates. Older inmates were far less likely to reoffend than inmates in their 20's – a pretty obvious conclusion.

The bottom line is that America is the incarceration capital of the world. But our insatiable appetite to jail, imprison, and confine is not financially sustainable. These two recent studies support the notion that incarceration does have its limits; more incarceration doesn't necessarily mean less recidivism. There is a ‘sweet spot,' if you will, for prison terms. We should be aiming to become a better society; strive to not only reduce crime but better improve lives. Longer jailing and mandatory minimums aren't the answer, they are a quick and easy cop out for our politicians and criminal justice system alike.

About the Author

Joseph Tully

Founding Partner, Criminal Law Specialist Our founding attorney, Joseph Tully, is sought out for his expert legal advice throughout California. With over 20 years of experience as a criminal lawyer, in 1000+ felony and other cases, Tully served as felony trial counsel as a public defender before...