Editorial: Longer prison sentences costly for states

J ails and prisons are there for a reason: to keep the public safe, to deter crime, bring a sense of justice and responsibility, and, hopefully, reform offenders.

A new report suggests that cash-strapped states could save millions of dollars by reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes without risking an increase in crime.

The numbers of inmates and costs to hold them are significant — one in 100 adults are federal-state-local inmates.

The inmate population has been rising — even as serious crime has been falling — as state Legislatures and Congress take politically popular anti-crime stances and pass tougher sentencing requirements for a range of crimes.

The Pew Center on the States found that state prisoners released in 2009 served an average of nine additional months in custody — 36 percent longer — than offenders released in 1990. That's an extra cost of $23,300 per offender.

Minnesota stacks up a little better, with one of the lower incarceration rates in the country. But the average Minnesota offender released in 2009 served 38 percent more time than the average offender released in 1990. The added cost to the taxpayers: $93.2 million for the 3,482 offenders released in 2009.

And the inmate population in the state has quadrupled since 1980, with a growing proportion of the offenders serving time for drug-related offenses and tougher DWI sentences.

Pew research in several states showed that nonviolent offenders held for shorter times did not cause an increase in crime.

That conclusion is similar to many studies that show longer sentences don't do much as far as reducing recidivism rates.

A more sensible and cost effective approach for many nonviolent and drug crimes is shorter prison sentences with more required treatment.

In the end, the fuel behind a majority of crimes is substance abuse. Focusing resources on breaking those addictions not only saves money but improves the lives of those affected, their families and communities.

The Free Press of Mankato (Minn.)

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