June 21, 2012 at 8:05 AM ET
The amount of time criminals in the United States spend in prison has risen steadily for two decades. In 2009, the average released prisoner had served just under three years, a 36 percent increase from 1990. As prison stays have increased, so have the costs, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars per prisoner.
The Public Safety Performance Project, part of the Pew Charitable Trust, released a report examining the duration of prison sentences and stays in 35 states. The report, “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms,” measured the average prison sentence for prisoners, the average time served and the increased costs associated with keeping criminals incarcerated for longer periods of time. Based on the report, 24/7 Wall St. identified the states with the longest prison stays in the country.
According to the report, in states with the longest average prison stays, ranging from 3.1 years per inmate to 4.3 years, those stays increased the most in the past two decades. In eight of the 11 states listed here, average time served increased 32 percent or more. The average increased 83 percent in Oklahoma and nearly doubled in Virginia. Of these states, eight were among the 15 with the largest increases.
Reasons for the increases vary, according to Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project. In recent years, some states have passed legislation that increases how much each prisoner serves of his or her sentence. Also, parole boards have been more reluctant to release prisoners, regardless of the laws.
However, according to Gelb, the biggest driver is the belief that longer prison terms reduce recidivism. Unfortunately, Gelb says that it does not appear to work. “For a substantial number of nonviolent offenders, there is little or no evidence that keeping them locked up longer prevents crime or keeps them from re-offending once released from prison,” Gelb reported.
The average cost of keeping a prisoner locked up varies widely. In Oklahoma, it is estimated to cost the state $1,529 per month. In Oregon, the monthly bill is $5,304. Even at the lower end of the cost spectrum, these costs add up.
States spend tens of thousands of dollars more now than in 1990 because prisoners serve an average of nine additional months. In Michigan, the average time served grew by 23 months, more than any other state, or $53,247 more for the additional prison time. It is estimated that, of the prisoners released in 2009 alone, the state spent $471.9 million more than it would have if the average stay was still at 1990 levels.
The Pew report also broke out the costs resulting from increased prison periods of incarceration into three major types of crime. Since 1990, the length of stay for those committing property crimes, such as theft and burglary, increased 24 percent. Time served for drug-related crimes and violent crime rose more, with 36 percent and 37 percent increases, respectively. The average period of incarceration for violent crimes, which include murder, assault and robbery, increased from 3.7 years to five years. In Michigan, average incarceration time for these kinds of crimes increased from 3.6 years to 7.6 years, the longest stretch in the United States.
In addition to the average time served and costs associated with the additional time, 24/7 Wall St. examined recidivism rates by state, obtained from another Public Safety Performance Project report, titled “State of Recidivism: America’s Revolving Door.” Violent crime rates are based on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
These are the states with the longest prison stays in the United States.
Michigan has the longest average incarceration rates among all states surveyed, with an average time served of 4.3 years. That is almost half a year more than any other state and three years more than South Dakota, the state with the lowest length of stay. Michigan imposes especially long prison sentences for violent crimes, which carry an average time served of 7.6 years. That's a full 2.6 years more than the national average. The state also imposes long sentences for drug crimes, as the average time served was 2.9 years for prisoners released in 2009, tied for the second-highest average. This commitment of inmates to the state’s penal system has been especially expensive, as the state spent $53,247 to keep the average prisoner incarcerated for an additional 23 months. This average extra cost per prisoner was greater than in any other state in the nation.
In 1990, time served in Pennsylvania for violent, property and drug crimes were already comparatively high. By 2009, the average length of stay had reached 5.9 years for violent crimes, 2.9 years for property crimes and 2.8 years for drug crimes. These increases were due largely to changes in the percentage of sentences served, as sentence lengths have increased only marginally in the past 10 years. According to Pew, this was partially the result of changes in how prisoners received parole. In 1994, it took one vote from a five-person board for a prisoner to receive parole, but by 1996, five out nine votes were required for an inmate to receive parole.
3. New York
New York was the only state on this list that decreased incarceration time for both drug and property crimes. But between 1990 and 2009, the average length of prison stay for violent crimes increased by 24 percent to six years, a full year longer than the national average. With the second-highest cost in the nation per month of imprisonment, at $5,006 per inmate, decreasing detention length could help the state save millions of dollars in correctional facility costs. Keeping offenders in prison longer has cost New York $65.6 million, a relatively small amount given the increased cost per month.
The average prisoner released in Virginia in 1990 had served just 1.7 years — well below the then-national average of 2.1 years. By 2009, Virginia’s average time served had increased by 91 percent to 3.3 years, the second-highest percentage increase in the nation. Much of this increase was driven by a rise in the percentage of sentences served: From 1990 to 2000, the length of sentences served rose 71 percent for violent crimes and 116 percent for nonviolent crimes. This trend continued from 2000 to 2009, when the length of sentences served rose another 18 percent for violent crimes and 10 percent for nonviolent crimes. Such policies are extremely expensive. Simply keeping the same number of prisoners released in 2009 incarcerated for longer periods cost more than a half billion dollars.
The average prison time served in Georgia has increased by 75 percent since 1990, making it the sixth-largest percentage increase. Prisoners incarcerated for drug-related crimes in Georgia could serve 85 percent more time in 2009 than they would have in 1990. Those serving sentences for violent criminal offenses spent an average of 5.6 years behind bars, 12 percent more time than the national average. The increased length of time served has resulted in an increased cost of $28,563 per inmate for a total of $536.1 million.