A new study by Abt Associates shows that cutting average federal prison time by 7.5 months can save vast sums of money with little effect on public safety. The 19 percent shortening of prison sentences would enable a reduction of 33,203 prison beds without any significant increase in a return to federal prison by those released. If the Bureau of Prisons closed prisons instead of just shrinking the number of beds across the board, the report said, the Bureau could save money two ways. It could pare marginal costs such as food and considerable fixed costs such as administrative overhead and maintenance.
The report said the shift also could trim the substantial social costs of mass incarceration. Other studies have shown that long prison terms degrade a person’s skills. Loss of employment can result in a loss of healthcare, a loss of income for individuals and their families, and other losses of social support. In addition, the absence of a parent can produce developmental issues for children and promote the development of antisocial behavior.
Furthermore, prison incarceration raises issues of participation in a democratic society. Prisoners can’t vote or be counted in the U.S. Census at their home address, depriving the community of political clout and appropriate funding levels for population-based programs. Thus the shorter prison terms can help the prisoner, family and broader community.
The new report marries two Abt capabilities. One is our technical econometric prowess. The other is our unique experience processing and compiling vast amounts of federal prison data over the last five years under a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the Federal Justice Statistics Program (FJSP). Abt processes, links and analyzes administrative records on every individual who comes in contact with the federal criminal justice system. The data start from when the person is booked, investigated and charged and goes through sentencing, incarceration, probation and post-conviction community supervision. BJS makes the data available to other researchers.
The report’s authors used a regression discontinuity design and instrumental variables to analyze data from the FJSP. The data covered U.S. citizens who were serious offenders sentenced under federal sentencing guidelines from 1999 to 2014.
The authors note that economic and community benefits are not decisive enough for everyone to justify a policy change. Many believe that “people deserve punishment commensurate to the harm caused by their criminal conduct,” the report said. But it added, “One can reduce time served for everyone and still make punishment proportional to the seriousness of the crime.”
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This project was supported by Cooperative Agreement 2016-BJ-CX-K044, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.