By Leslie Minora
Meet the average modern Texas prisoner, released in 2009. He spent 2.8 years behind bars — 32 percent more time than his average prisoner predecessor released in 1990. If he was busted for a violent crime, he spent 5.3 years locked up, a 44 percent increase from his predecessor in 1990. You’ve spent a hell of a lot of tax dollars keeping Mr. Average Prisoner in the clink, according to this Pew Center study on prison tems, which didn’t phrase it quite that way.
Pew crunched the numbers for Texas: $1,783 (average one-month prison stay) x eight months (average increase from 1990 to 2009) = $14,682/prisoner. If you multiply that by the amount of prisoners released in 2009, you get $620.1 million dollars, the amount taxpayers have spent keeping people in prison longer.
Nationally, the average length of additional time over the course of two decades is nine months, a month longer than that of Texas. Nearly every state increased prison sentence lengths, Pew reports. Florida lead the pack with a 166 percent increase. And Texas’ $620.1 million on increased sentences becomes over $10 billion across the country, with more than half of that attributed to non-violent offenders. But if it all sounds excessive, there’s a catch.
Getting serious career criminals off the streets: priceless.
“Serious crime has been dwindling for the past two decades, and imprisonment deserves some of the credit,” the Pew study reports, “But 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.”
Here are measures that states have been exploring to curb sentence length without tipping the scales in the direction of higher crime: raising the dollar amount that constitutes certain felony property crimes, revising drug offenses to ensure that the punishment fits the crime, scaling back minimum sentence requirements, increasing opportunities for merit-based sentence reductions, revising eligibility requirements for parole.
Texas criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast makes the interesting point that while Florida’s average time served rose by 166 percent, New York’s rose by two percent. And crime in New York has taken a nosedive. So, whatever the connection between crime reduction and incarceration time, it’s certainly more complex than a 1:1 ratio.