Inmates serving more time - at a price

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled out mandatory life sentences without parole for individuals who killed when they were under the age of 18.

Advocates for “teen lifers” say the ruling will likely mean new penalty hearings for about 2,000 to 2,500 nationwide and, for the first time, hope they may not die in prison. Pennsylvania has the highest number of juvenile offenders serving life without parole: 480, about 350 from Philadelphia.

But for other inmates, there was sobering news from a study this month by the Pew Center on the States: all people sentenced to prison – for violent and nonviolent crimes – are serving longer sentences.

The Pew study, part of its Public Safety Performance Project, found that inmates released in 2009 served an average of 36 percent more time behind bars – nine months longer – than those released in 1990. Violent offenders served 37 percent more prison time, drug offenders 36 percent and inmates convicted of nonviolent property crimes 24 percent, the study reported.

“Violent and career criminals belong behind bars,” wrote Adam Gelb, the project’s director. “But building more prisons to house lower-risk non-violent inmates for longer sentences simply is not the best way to reduce crime.”

The Pew study’s findings were based on National Corrections Reporting Program data from 35 states collected and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. The study says the 35 states included 89 percent of all inmates released in 2009, the most recent year for which data are available.

Pennsylvania, the Pew Study found, ranked second in the longest average prison time served for all inmates released in 2009: 3.8 years. Michigan was number one, at 4.3 years, and South Dakota the least at 1.3 years. The national average for time served among inmates released in 2009 was 2.9 years.

Pennsylvania’s average prison time served increased 32 percent from 1990 to 2009, the study found. Average time served for violent offenders and drug offenders increased 44 percent; nonviolent offenders’ average time served increased 17 percent.

New Jersey, by contrast, saw an 8-percent increase in the average time served by all inmates between 1990 and 2009. The average increase for violent offenders was 33 percent and for drug offenders 14 percent. But the average time served for nonviolent offenders in New Jersey decreased 9 percent from 1990 to 2009.

Delaware was among states that did not submit enough data for the study time period to be included, the Pew report said.

The Pew report concluded that the prison expansion “has delivered some public safety payoff. Serious crime has been declining for the past two decades and imprisonment deserves some of the credit.”

But the report says criminologists increasingly agree that the country is near a “tipping point” where longer prison terms “will have little if any effect on crime.”

And it comes at a real cost to taxpayers, the report warns. The Pew study found that, nationwide, those average nine months of extra confinement cost $23,300 per offender.

“For offenders released from the original commitment in 2009 alone,” the report concludes, “the additional time behind bars cost states over $10 billion, with more than half of this cost attributable to nonviolent offenders.”

In New Jersey, for example, the average cost of two months of additional prison time came to $10,919 per inmate, or $109.1 million. In Pennsylvania, the report found, the average cost of the extra 11 months its inmates served from 1990 to 2009 was $39,440, for a total additional cost of $316.6 million.

“Taxpayers, today more than ever, want their dollars to produce the best possible public safety results,” wrote Gelb. “The idea behind longer prison terms is that they will cut crime and recidivism. But for a large number of lower-risk offenders, that just isn’t the case. There’s a high cost and little to no crime control benefit.”

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