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Longer prison sentences cost billions and don't deter crime

What deters people in Portsmouth from committing crimes? Do people have moral aversions to buying and selling marijuana, or are they afraid of going to prison if they're caught? According to a recent PEW study, it's likely not the latter.

The study revealed that states spend $51 billion a year on corrections efforts, and the majority of that money is invested in prisons. Specifically, the money is spent on longer prison sentences, which have doubled in length since 1990.

In one state, for example, the average prison term increased by about 50 percent. There, inmates serve an average sentence of 2.9 years.

An average prison sentence of less than three years may not seem significant, but the expenses associated with each prison stay add up quickly when every drug offender is tossed behind bars. The PEW study found that in one year, people who were released from their original sentence went on to spend more time behind bars. For that, states pay heavily -- more than $10 billion in 2009 alone.

Moreover, more than half of that cost was attributed to non-violent offenders, including people convicted of possession of drugs, drug trafficking and drug manufacturing.

As prison sentences steadily increase, the crime rate across the country has dropped. Many people attribute the lower crime rate to the increased prison sentences. However, the PEW report stated that the "increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s." Now, the country has reached a tipping point, where implementing longer prison sentences will no longer contribute to decreased crime rates.

The study argued that "there is little or no evidence that keeping [non-violent offenders] locked up longer prevents additional crime." What will it take to ensure criminal sentences match that conclusion?

Source: KPCC, "A PEW study finds lengthy prison terms cost a lot, with little in return," Rina Palta, June 6, 2012

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