Prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36 percent longer, than offenders released in 1990, according to a recent report released by the Pew Center on the States' Public Safety Performance Project. The study found that for offenders released from their original sentence in 2009 alone, the additional time behind bars cost states $23,300 per offender, or a total of over $10 billion, more than half of which was for nonviolent 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.
Violent and career criminals belong behind bars, and for a long time," said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. "But building more prisons to house lower-risk nonviolent inmates for longer sentences simply is not the best way to reduce crime."
Though almost all states increased length of stay over the last two decades, the overall change varied widely between states. Among 35 reporting states representing nearly 90 percent of 2009 prison releases, 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. Download the report and state fact sheets.
A companion analysis Pew conducted in partnership with external researchers identified the public safety impact of longer prison terms, using data about nonviolent offenders released in 2004 from Florida, Maryland, and Michigan.
The study revealed that many of those nonviolent 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.
The report 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.