Study: Shorter Sentences Key to Shrinking Federal Prisons

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Photo by ChangTing via Flickr

Sentencing-reform advocates will find new ammunition in a federally funded study that shows how much more quickly the federal prison system shrinks through shortened sentences than through diverting low-level offenders to probation.

The study by Abt Associations shows that cutting average federal prison time by 19 percent, or 7.5 months, can save vast sums of money without higher recidivism. Closing prisons saves money by cutting both marginal costs such as food and fixed costs such as administrative overhead and maintenance.

Those effects held true regardless of an offender’s criminal history, offense seriousness, sex, race, and education level, the study found.

The study, published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy, is part of a five-year project by Abt to analyze federal prison data on every U.S. citizen sentenced under federal sentencing guidelines for serious offenses from 1999 to 2014, covering every step from initial booking to post-conviction community supervision. The full text of the study is published here.

The federal prison population is, of course, a relatively small slice of a much larger state and local incarceration pie but it is the largest single prison system in the country.

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