Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Is Reduction In Recidivism Worth The Cost Of Longer Sentences?

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.


  1. Absolutely agree that preventing crime is far more cost effective, but longer sentences can play a big role in that. If the right offenders can be identified, the six percenters, and focused efforts result in their incarceration for longer periods of time, then according to the crime funnel, fewer crimes will be committed. Not only that, but also fewer people end up in prison at the bottom of the funnel. It's not about arresting more people, it's about arresting the right people. Granted, it's not the whole puzzle, but it is a big piece.

  2. Tim,
    I guess the hard part is going to be identifying those likely to re-offend. It would be interesting to see if those offenders re-offending with "minor" parole violations are also more likely to commit other more serious crimes.

  3. Yes, selecting the right people to begin with is the key. While not particularly objective, our criteria for acceptance into our Repeat Offender Program read as follows:
    1) Current Activity: Current activity involves participation in criminal events, either as a perpetrator or as an accomplice.
    2) Felony Convictions: Prior felony convictions in the past ten (10) years.
    3) Substance Abuse: Suggested by a prior record of illegal sale/possession of drugs, has association with known substance abusers or by failure in a treatment program.
    4) Rate of unemployment.
    5) A lifestyle that could not be supported by the individual’s current financial means.
    6) Failure to comply with terms of probation.
    7) High violence potential.
    8) The types of arrests that have been made in the past to include:
    a. The brazen nature of the crimes committed;
    b. The willingness to confront victims directly;
    c. Committing crime to support a substance abuse problem, for the thrill, or for sexual gratification.

    As we assess our effectiveness, we maintain a control group of those nominated but not accepted into the program. Here are a few of the most interesting stats from the first 18 months of the program. Average bond of those arrested after nomination: ROP Population $18,000, Control Group 5,000. Those convicted after nomination: ROP 67%, Control 46%. Felony convictions after nomination: ROP 87%, Control 22%. Average sentence of those convicted after nomination: ROP 39 months, Control 8.8 months.

    While these numbers look good, we do recognize that we can't simply arrest our way out of crime problems, even if we focus primarily on the repeat offenders. We are currently looking to add Kennedy's "Don't Shoot" program to our repeat offenders and are sending a team out to High Point NC in a couple of weeks to witness one of their call-ins. We hope to be able to get some to stop their offending without arrest.


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