The Atlantic had an interesting article yesterday that looked at the effect that longer prison sentences had on recidivism. The study by Harvard doctoral candidate Peter Ganong found that on average each year added to a prison term results in around a 14% drop in recidivism. On the surface, this sounds good but it's a lot more complicated than that.
His work also suggests that the state of Georgia, and the communities within it, are paying dearly to keep people in prison longer all for the relatively minor reduction in parole violations. The per-prisoner annual operating cost of Georgia state prisons is roughly $25,300. Ganong estimates the cost of crimes committed over the next 10 years by the average released prisoner would be, at the most, about $12,000 per prisoner. So, essentially, the state is paying $25,300 to prevent $1,200 worth of crimes per year.
Of course, not all the crimes prevented are minor. There's no exact way of knowing for sure, but it's statistically probable that an increased prison sentence has prevented at least some of the more major crimes people tend to worry about. Which raises the question for public officials: is it worth the high cost of keeping people in prison longer to prevent a lot of minor crimes and maybe a few major ones, too?
The "lock 'em up" strategy of crime reduction is very expensive. With a smaller budget pie the question we need to ask is just how big a piece of pie should we give to this strategy? What might be even more cost effective is preventing the crime from happening in the first place.