Mike Klein Online

Did Longer Time Served Reduce Crime or Just Cost Money?

Mike Klein

During the past five years there has been extensive discussion in Georgia and nationally about the relationship between prison costs and public safety. Texas and Kansas were the earliest states to enact reforms in 2007.  Then the recession hit, inmate counts were viewed as budget busters and other states jumped aboard the reform wagon.  Georgia passed significant new law this year and is in the earliest stages of implementation that will take years to evaluate.

Most analysis here and nationally focused on the growth in state inmate populations during the past two decades.  That is because politically popular 1990s do-the-crime, do-the-time policies were enacted with faith in the idea that longer time served by bad people would reduce crime.

New research this month from the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project has concluded, “Experts differ on precise figures, but they generally conclude that the increased use of incarceration accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the crime drop in the 1990s.”  States individually have to decide their own balance between some improvement and $10.4 billion in extra cost to state corrections systems.

What we know today – and it took almost two decades to figure this out – is a lot of people sent to prison were non-violent personal drug users who posed little threat to anyone else, or they were sick and needed medical help more than prison time. More states now understand they must decide whether drugs are a crime or an illness.

When you look closer at national data, inmate populations have sharply accelerated for longer than 30 years.  The country had 320,000 state prisoners in 1980, about 740,000 in 1990 and that more than doubled to 1.543 million over the next 20 years ending in 2010, according to federal Bureau of Justice Statistics data.

You can go back farther and create an intriguing 1925 to 2010 comparison.  Back in the middle of the Roaring 20’s the country had fewer than 92,000 state prisoners and a population of 115 million.  If state prisoner and national populations had grown at identical percentage rates today we would have 1.945 billion people in the country.  We are very good at locking up people.

Pew’s new report “Time Served: The High Cost, Low Return of Longer Prison Terms” studied data from 35 states including Georgia.  Pew said time served by inmates released in 2009 was 36% longer than inmates released in 1990.   Longer time served had huge financial impacts on state budgets.  Pew says the extra cost in Georgia was $536 million.  You can see their calculations here.

Adam Gelb, Director, Pew Public Safety Performance Project

“It certainly is understandable that penalties are raised when society or policy makers don’t feel penalties reflect the seriousness of the offense,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Public Safety Performance Project. “But most often that’s not been the driving factor.  It was a sense that stiffer penalties would be effective at reducing those crimes.”

Average time served for all crimes increased most in Florida, up 166% compared to the 35-state average of 36%.  Georgia was up 75% (sixth highest among 35 states) and North Carolina up 86% (third highest). In time served for violent crimes, Florida was up 137%, North Carolina up 55% (tied for sixth highest) and Georgia up 41% (11th highest) against a 37% average increase.

Drug sentence strategies and time served are an extreme conversation.  At one end you have personal users.  At the other end you have traffickers and manufacturers.  Pew compared time served by the most serious offenders.  Florida sentences were up 194%, Georgia was up 85% (fifth highest) and North Carolina up 38% (17th highest).  Drug sentences served in Tennessee actually decreased by 9% during the twenty-year cycle.

Florida time served for property crimes grew by 181%, again the largest increase.  Georgia was fifth highest at 68%.  North Carolina’s increase was 20% and Tennessee sentences were 45% shorter.

Gelb said Pew’s research “reinforces the notion that state policy choices determine or drive the size and cost of state prison populations, not so much crime rates or broad demographic trends.  These numbers go up or down based on how policy makers respond to situations rather than forces that are largely out of their control.”

The Department of Corrections says Georgia had 54,373 inmates on June 8 this year; that is up from 52,478 last year.  Governor Nathan Deal signed a criminal justice reform law last month that emphasizes alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders.

Georgia prisons cost $1 billion a year; probation and parole services add another $400 million.  Alternative court programs for mental health and some but not all drug offenders and other changes are predicted to save the state $264 million over the next four years.  The belief is these changes can be made without compromising public safety.

Georgia criminal justice reform will extend beyond implementation of this year’s new law.  The state Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform will reconvene this summer. Governor Deal has said the council will be asked for juvenile justice and code recommendations that could result in the state’s first comprehensive rewrite of those laws in several decades.

Pew analyzed National Corrections Reporting Program data voluntarily submitted by the states and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.  Click here to read the Pew summary.  Click here to read state fact sheets.

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

June 18, 2012 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pew Center Targets Recidivism; Georgia Launches Corrections Reform

Mike Klein

Georgia lawmakers introduced 945 bills this year.  One that passed will fast track review of the state’s $1 billion per year corrections system costs with a concentration on how to reduce existing state prison populations and slow their growth without impacting public safety.

So many Georgia adults are under state corrections system jurisdiction that their number would fill the Georgia Dome three times.  Or if you are a University of Georgia Bulldogs fan …that would be two sold out Sanford Stadiums and 40,000 more folks tailgating.

The state’s new criminal justice reform commission will no doubt find an important resource in a study released by the Pew Center on the States.  “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” is the first ever state-by-state survey of adult recidivism.  The study is a clarion call for state legislatures to recognize corrections costs are runaway budget busters.

“State of Recidivism” analysts requested three-year recidivism (return to prison) data from every state for adults released in 1999 and 2004.  Thirty-three states including Georgia provided information for both years; 41 submitted only 2004 year data.  Nine states submitted nothing.

“Our main goal and purpose was not to rank states and say who was doing a good or bad job but to elevate the discussion and to prompt state policy makers to begin asking questions,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States public safety performance project.  Pew found more than four in 10 adults return to prison within three years after their initial release.

Pew noted that Georgia’s three-year recidivism rates were below national averages.  The state also ranked below national averages for adults returned to prison because they committed a new crime.   All data is not equal, however, as Pew noted some states return adults to prison for certain kinds of violations whereas other states place them in alternative programs.

Last year’s Pew report “Prison Count 2010” examined how alternative strategies in some states contributed to the first reduction in state prisoner head count in 40 years.  “State of Recidivism” was begun two years ago and it is the next building block in Pew public safety research.

Adam Gelb

Gelb is a former U.S. Senate judiciary staffer.  He was back on Capitol Hill in February.  Gelb told a Congressional sub-committee that adult corrections system spending by states is their second fastest growing budget category behind Medicaid.  He said state corrections dollars account for one in every 14 general fund dollars, twice what their share was in the mid-1980s.

“Nearly 90 percent of the spending goes to prisons, even though two-thirds of the offender population is on probation or parole in the community,” Gelb told the Congressional subcommittee.  “Five states now spend more on corrections than higher education.  When you add in the federal and local incarceration costs, the tab surpasses $70 billion.”

Gelb described the Pew recidivism study as “a gargantuan task.  We hoped that we would have seen a tangible drop in the overall rates but I think it turned out to be fairly flat.   It had been so long since any national recidivism data was available that we didn’t know what to expect.”

Here’s what Pew found: Nationally, 45% of state inmates released in 1999 and 43% released in 1999 were back behind bars within three years.  Georgia’s performance was better with 38% in 1999 and 34.8% in 2004.  Pew said California skewed national statistics.  California has more prisoners than any other state; it reported 61.1% and 57.8% recidivism rates.

Georgia has the nation’s ninth largest total population with 9.68 million but the fourth largest inmate population.  One-in-13 adult Georgians is under corrections system jurisdiction, the worst rate in the nation.  The state has 60,000 adults incarcerated in state facilities and 160,000 on probation or parole. Those totals do not include adults in local and county custody.

Escalation in the state prison population and costs to maintain the system were recognized when Governor Nathan Deal, Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and bipartisan state leaders announced criminal justice reform this spring.  A new commission created by the General Assembly must report its findings before November 1.

The commission will examine options for non-violent offenders that include more probation, day reporting centers, new special courts for drug, DUI and mental health cases and other kinds of community-based programs that could be used when an individual poses no public safety risk.

This year Governor Deal sent a letter to Pew asking for research assistance.  Gelb said Pew has requests from several states, but he added, “All the stars seem to be aligning in Georgia.”

(Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation)

April 18, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Can Georgia Still Afford “Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key”?

Georgia has a significant corrections system challenge and there’s no getting around that fact.  Nationally one in every 100 adults is behind state prison or local jail bars but the number is one in every 70 Georgia adults.  Nationally one in every 31 adults is in prison or jail, on probation or on parole but the comparable number is one in every 13 Georgia adults, worst in the nation.

“It’s really something else that this state is number one, if you will, when it comes to the extent of correctional control of its citizens,” said  Adam Gelb, current director of the Public Safety Performance Project at the Pew Center on the States and formerly, a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee staff member.

Gelb moderated “Getting Criminal Justice Right: Less Crime for Less Money” at the inaugural Georgia Public Policy Foundation legislative conference.  Gelb was joined by Texas legislator Jerry Madden and Texas Public Policy Foundation analyst Marc Levin.  Madden is considered one of the nation’s top corrections systems innovators and Levin is director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas foundation.

Adam Gelb

Gelb said 25 years ago Georgia spent about $150 million per year on state corrections.  Today the state corrections budget is about $1.1 billion.  But Georgia is not alone.  State corrections budgets exploded during recent years and now are substantial line items in state governments.

“Most people would say that would all be worth it if we got a really strong public safety return,” Gelb said, “and there’s no question that here in Georgia and across the country the expansion of incarceration has helped reduced the crime rate, no question at all.”

Gelb was executive director of the Georgia Governor’s Commission on Certainty in Sentencing between 2001 and 2003.  “When you lock up career offenders, when you lock up violent people that’s who you have prisons for and it pays off,” Gelb said.  “The issue is, have we locked up so many people, has the net been cast so wide that we’re past the point of diminishing returns?  The answer seems to be yes.”

This year Governing Magazine honored Madden and fellow Texas legislator John Whitmire as 2010 Public Officials of the Year for their efforts to reform the Texas corrections system.  The Lone Star state’s landmark 2007 reforms de-emphasized building new prisons.  They had so many new ideas that Madden is almost continuously on-the-road consulting with other states.

Jerry Madden

Madden and Whitmire designed a model that added 4,000 beds for substance abuse treatment, expanded specialty courts, expanded probation services, built short-term jails, and devoted new funding to mental health care and halfway release residences.  They received assistance from Levin at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other outside corrections analysts.

Their new model required a $241 million Texas state government investment.  Their reforms replaced an option to spend $2 billion on new prison construction.  Last year the state’s prison population declined and Texas will not need new prison beds until at least the year 2014.

Levin said the current Texas crime rate is the lowest since 1973, even allowing for events at the contentious U.S.-Mexico border.  Gelb said Georgia’s prison population, about 55,000 adults, is up 30% over ten years and statewide crime is down about 20%.  He noted Mississippi and South Carolina passed recent corrections system reforms.  And, Gelb said the Pew Center will soon begin to work on reforms with Alabama and Louisiana.

Levin and Madden define corrections system reform, in part, as breaking the cycle of adult offenders who return to the corrections system.  “The smartest tool you have is a good risk assessment tool,” Madden said.  He urged states to determine whether offenders are “really bad people or were they people who made really dumb decisions?”

“As conservatives we emphasize limited government and we recognize public safety is, I think, one of those few core roles of government,” Levin said.  “It’s important to hold criminal justice agencies accountable for their results reducing recidivism and make sure that our system is truly effective.  We talk about merit pay, we talk about teach quality (and) accountability in education.  We ought to be just as demanding when it comes to corrections.”

Watch the panel on the Public Policy Foundation YouTube channel: http://tinyurl.com/3x625v4

Mike Klein is Editor at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.


December 9, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment