Federal Sentence Lengths Double, Costing Billions with No Measurable Results


Criminal justice expenses skyrocketed during this period due to the increasing numbers of inmates and expanding sentence lengths, Pew reported. (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)

The length of federal prison sentences have more than doubled since 1988, which has resulted in billions of additional costs, according to an issues brief from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Across all six major categories of federal crime - violent, property, drug, public order, weapon and immigration offenses - imprisonment periods increased significantly," Pew noted, expanding from an average length of 17.9 months (1988) to 37.5 months (2012).

Strict sentencing guidelines (including mandatory minimums) and the elimination of parole in 1987 (requiring federal inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before release) were cited as two reasons for the growth, causing the federal prison population to increase by 336 percent.

Sentence length increases varied by category: weapons (37.4 month increase), drugs (35.4), public order (28.6), violence (21.8), immigration (12.9) and property (6.4).

The report said, "One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders - those convicted of drug-related charges - was the "single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010."

Criminal justice expenses skyrocketed during this period due to the increasing numbers of inmates and expanding sentence lengths.

"Federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars," Pew reported. "Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department."

The lengthened sentences and increased costs "have little or no effect on recidivism and crime rates," Pew noted.

The full report is available here.

Editor's note: EthicsDaily.com's documentary, "Through the Door," focuses on faith and prisons. Articles related to prison reform are available here.

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