States could cut their prison populations by almost 400,000 and save millions of dollars if the average inmate’s length of stay behind bars were cut to 1988 levels, says corrections researcher James Austin. Speaking to the National Committee on Community Corrections, Austin said that for those convicted of violent crimes, this would mean spending an average of 34 months in prison rather than 49 months. He contended that serving 15 months less would have little or no impact on the amount of repeat criminality later.
Austin is doing research for the Norval Morris Project, of the National Institute of Corrections, a Justice Department agency. Morris was an internationally known criminologist who died in 2004. Austin contends that shorter punishments are just as effective as long prison terms, and that many penalties in the U.S. are far out of proportion to crimes. For example, a typical convicted robber spends 60 months in prison at a cost of about $115,000, compared with the median victim loss of $100 in a robbery. Overall, $215 billion is spent annually on criminal justice systems in the U.S. although actual losses by victims are under $20 billion, Austin says. Yesterday’s meeting, at the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C., was chaired by Donald Santarelli and Mary Shilton.