Keeping people in prison and jails is costly. The Pew Charitable Trusts found that each occupied jail bed cost an annual average of nearly $34,000 in 2017. The average cost per prison inmate in 45 states in 2015 was $33,274 annually, according to “The Price of Prisons” from the Vera Institute of Justice.
People released in 2018 had spent an average of 2.7 years in prison, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In jails, the average length of stay in 2017 was 26 days, a 22% increase from 2010.
States have taken a variety of actions to shorten jail and prison stays. Changes to sentencing policies include the elimination of some mandatory minimums and streamlining the process of parole release. States have also expanded opportunities for release by adopting sentence credits and geriatric parole.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, release policies in particular have received increased attention. Social distancing is very difficult in correctional settings, and many incarcerated people are at increased risk because of age or underlying medical conditions.
Source: Local Spending on Jails Tops $25 Billion in Latest Nationwide Data, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2021.
Expenditures have been adjusted to 2017 dollars. Additional notes for this chart can be found in the report.
Sentencing Policy Changes
Mandatory minimums require individuals convicted of certain criminal offenses to be sentenced to at least some set length of incarceration, removing any judicial discretion to shorten that stay. Research from Pew looking at Florida, Maryland and Michigan found that individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses could have served shorter sentences without impacting public safety. To reduce the length of time individuals spend in prison or jails, states have taken steps to remove mandatory minimums for some offenses.
Recidiviz, a criminal justice data platform, looked at the potential impact of eliminating all mandatory minimums in Virginia in November 2020. The analysis found that the state could save $80.2 million over five years, reduce the prison population by up to 809 people and decrease the racial disparities seen in the state’s prison population.
Making changes that streamline the process of parole eligibility and release through presumptive or administrative parole can also reduce length of stay. Presumptive or administrative parole means individuals who meet certain conditions are automatically approved for release once they are eligible. This also reduces the administrative burden on parole boards by eliminating the need to go through the full parole review process.
An analysis of New Jersey’s Earn Your Way Out Act (SB 761), which went into effect in February 2021, found that mandating administrative parole, which grants release without a parole hearing, would save money and lighten the parole board’s caseload.
Expanded Release Opportunities
People who are incarcerated can earn “good time” credits toward completion of their sentence by following prison rules and participating in required activities. They can receive “earned time” credits for participation in or completion of productive activities such as education, vocational training, treatment and work programs.
In Nevada, for instance, inmates can earn up to 20 days of good time credit for each month they perform all assigned duties and avoid serious infractions. Earned time can help create an incentive for successful participation in programs that contribute to rehabilitation. Additional information on state policies creating these credits can be found on NCSL’s webpage.
Sentence credits are in place in 42 states. At least 33 states have statutorily established good time policies, and 34 states have put opportunities for earned time in law. Utah’s earned time policy resulted in a one-year decrease of 106,578 incarceration days after implementation in 2016, and more than 54,000 days cut each of the last three fiscal years.
Health care costs accounted for about 20% of prison expenditures in 2015, according to Pew research. Medical and geriatric parole laws can help reduce those expenses. At least 45 states have medical parole, and at least 17 have geriatric parole. Read more about these laws on NCSL’s State Medical and Geriatric Parole Laws webpage.
California expanded its geriatric parole law in 2020, lowering the minimum age to 50 from 60 and reducing the minimum time-served requirement to 20 from 25 years. An analysis of the expansion from Recidiviz found that an additional 779 people would become eligible for parole review, and the state could save between $133.8 million and $207.5 million over five years. The calculation is based on the comparative annual cost of incarcerating someone over age 50 ($111,00 to $166,400) and the cost of parole ($10,182).
Expanding some of these policies to apply to people in jails provides another opportunity to shorten incarceration time and cut costs for localities.
Changes to community supervision violations, which present another opportunity to shorten length of stay and reduce corrections spending, are explored in more depth in the final brief in this series.
This report was prepared under a partnership project of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Criminal Justice Program in Denver and the Pew Charitbale Trusts’ public safety performance project, Washington, D.C.