It's not just our imagination: people are spending more time in prison now than they were 20 years ago, and
this new report from the Pew Center on the States proves it, analyzing the amount of prison time served for various crimes in 35 states around the country. (See how your state measured up here.)
As lawmakers have passed harsher sentencing laws over the last few decades, time served has increased -- along with prison populations and costs. The worst offenders include Florida:
Although nearly every state increased length of stay during the past two decades, the overall change varied widely among states. In a few states, time served grew rapidly between 1990 and 2009, among them Florida (166 percent [increase in time served]), Virginia (91 percent), North Carolina (86 percent), Oklahoma (83 percent), Michigan (79 percent), and Georgia (75 percent). Eight states reduced time served, including Illinois (down 25 percent) and South Dakota (down 24 percent). Among prisoners released from reporting states in 2009, Michigan had the longest average time served, at 4.3 years, followed closely by Pennsylvania (3.8 years). South Dakota had the lowest average time served at 1.3 years, followed by Tennessee (1.9 years).
The growth in time served was remarkably similar across crime types. Offenders released in 2009 served:The additional cost to states of these increases in time served: $10 billion.
- For drug crimes: 2.2 years, up from 1.6 years in 1990 (a 36 percent increase)
- For property crimes: 2.3 years up from 1.8 years in 1990 (a 24 percent increase)
Again, the national numbers mask large interstate variation. For violent crimes, Florida led the way among states with a 137 percent increase in length of stay, while prison stays for New York’s violent inmates rose only 24 percent. Property offenders in nine of 35 states served less time on average in the last available year of data compared with 1990, even as those in Georgia, Florida, Virginia, Oklahoma, and West Virginia saw average increases of more than a year. States such as Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma more than doubled average time served by drug offenders, even as Illinois, Missouri, New York, Tennessee, and Nevada cut average time served for the same group.
- For violent crimes: 5.0 years up from 3.7 years in 1990 (a 37 percent increase)
And here's the worst part: there's little or no evidence that locking most people up longer actually keeps us safer. The report looks at Maryland, Michigan, and Florida and concludes that "a significant portion of the state prison populations could have been released sooner with no impact on public safety" (see page 36).
Mandatory minimum sentences virtually guarantee that many people will spend too much time in prison -- and cost taxpayers more than any public safety benefit they're reaping. This is not a smart or safe way to punish. We can and must do better.