As their budgetary struggles continue, state governments could save millions by reducing criminal sentences for nonviolent offenders without risking higher crime rates.
That’s the message of a recent report by the Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C. It attempts to help states achieve long-term fiscal health by identifying program investments that provide the greatest returns.
The Pew study found that prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody, or 36 percent longer, than offenders released in 1990. While that may not sound like much, the additional time in prison cost states an average of $23,300 per offender — or a total of more than $10 billion, with more than half of the cost going for nonviolent offenders.
“Violent and career criminals belong behind bars, and for a long time,” said Adam Gelb, director of the study. “But building more prisons to house lower-risk nonviolent inmates for longer sentences simply is not the best way to reduce crime.”
The report says the combined federal-state-local inmate count in 2008 reached 2.3 million, or one in 100 adults. Annual state spending on corrections now tops $51 billion, with prisons accounting for the vast majority of the cost.
According to the Pew report, the trends are similar here. The average Minnesota offender released in 2009 served 2.3 years in custody, 38 percent more time than the average offender released in 1990. The added cost to the taxpayers: $93.2 million for the 3,482 offenders released in 2009.
State not impressed with report
John Schadl, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Corrections, was largely dismissive of the report. Schadl said that while Minnesota joined other states in the 1980s and 1990s in imposing tougher sentences for violent and drug offenses, this state still has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the nation — second only to Maine in 2010.
Schadl said Minnesota currently holds 9,500 adult offenders in 10 prisons at a cost of $456 million a year. In comparison, he said, Wisconsin has 23,000 inmates in 22 prisons at a cost of $1.2 billion a year.
“Our typical offender in prison is someone who is a threat to society, which is why they are there,” he added.
Department officials also said the Pew study used prison cost figures for Minnesota that were somewhat inflated, exaggerating the savings that could be achieved by reducing sentences.
Over the years, Minnesota has benefitted from the community corrections act passed in 1973 and the sentencing guidelines law enacted in 1978, both aimed at reserving state prisons for the most serious offenders and dealing with nonviolent offenders through community-based programs.
Sources: All time served numbers from a Pew analysis of the National Corrections Reporting Program data.
Still, the adult inmate population in Minnesota has more than quadrupled since 1980, with a growing proportion of the offenders serving time for drug-related offenses.
Grant Duwe, research director for the corrections department, said the growth has been driven not only by tougher sentences for violent and drug crimes, but also by the felony DUI law enacted in 2002 for chronic offenders and by the explosion in methamphetamine use in the last decade.
Duwe said more than 700 inmates now in prison are serving time for DUI offenses, and that the number of meth offenders behind bars has come down to that level after reaching 1,100 in the middle of the last decade.
According to the Pew report, the amount of time served by Minnesota drug offenders released in 2009 averaged 2.2 years, a 99 percent increase from 1990. For property crimes, the amount of time served by offenders released in 2009 averaged 1.6 years, a 16 percent increase.
The Pew report says tougher sentences deserve some of the credit for the decline in serious crime over the past two decades – perhaps accounting for one-quarter to one-third of the drop, according to some experts.
“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,” it says.
A Pew analysis conducted by researchers using data from three states — Florida, Maryland, and Michigan — found that a significant proportion of nonviolent offenders who were released in 2004 could have served shorter prison terms without adversely affecting public safety.
Alexander sees merit
Hennepin County District Judge Pamela Alexander, president of the Minneapolis-based Council on Crime and Justice, said she sees considerable merit in the idea of reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders. “We know from just about every study that has been done that longer sentences really don’t do much as far as reducing recidivism rates,” she said.
“Politicians aren’t going to win races saying, ‘Let’s not put people in jail’ — that’s not what voters want to hear,” Alexander said. “But now people are starting to look at the cost [of incarceration], which is getting astronomical. We can actually get better results with shorter prison sentences and treatment than we can with longer sentences.”
District Judge Kevin Burke said he has read the Pew report and it is “spot on.” Burke, who has served as a Hennepin County district judge for 28 years and chief judge for four terms, said he would invest more dollars up front on programs such as education that prevent crime, and focus more on treatment rather than incarceration for drug offenders.
“I think the image that Minnesota has of itself is that we’re the Land of 10,000 Treatment Programs and we’re enlightened,” Burke said. “If so, wouldn’t we be first in getting people into treatment and having a more comprehensive approach to dealing with drug offenders? We aren’t. We’re average. And I think average is too expensive.”