According to a recent study, Florida’s inmates serve the longest relative prison sentences in the country. On the surface it looks like Florida’s tough criminal laws are working, but a closer look at the statistics reveals another story.
The Pew Center on the States conducted a survey of 35 states, analyzing and comparing the incarceration rates for inmates convicted of property crimes, drug offenses and violent crimes. The Pew Center found that inmates across the country served an average of nine additional months or an increase of 36 percent compared to average sentences in 1990.
In Florida, the study found that inmates convicted of non-violent drug crimes spent 194 percent more time in prison in 2009 compared to those incarcerated in 1990. Florida’s drug offenders now serve an average of 2.3 years versus nine months in 1990.
These increased incarceration rates have led to an explosive increase in Florida’s prison costs: over $1.4 billion.
Two other states have experienced an incarceration rate increase of 122 percent alongside increased prison costs. The Pew Center estimates that states with high incarceration rates spend about $10 billion annually on prison costs. Yet, according to the study, higher incarceration rates have not reduced crimes or increased public safety. In some states, the reverse is actually true.
States that reduced prison sentences have experienced an overall drop in crime. For example, Illinois reduced prison sentences in 2009. As a result, inmates now serve an average of 1.2 years in prison, a 25 percent decrease from 1990. Between 2009 and 2011, Illinois’ crime rates fell. Nevada has shortened sentences for drug offenses by 16 percent and has also experienced a dramatic drop in crime.
Tough on crime policies, mandatory sentences and limitations on parole in the 80s and 90s have led to longer incarceration periods. Now, as states recognize that these policies may be ineffective and add billions to prison costs, some are repealing and amending these laws.
The Pew Center’s report concluded that longer prison sentences created an explosion in the American prison population, which ultimately boomed by 700 percent between 1970 and 2005. In reviewing these numbers and studies like Pew’s, states including Florida will have to decide if longer prison sentences are worth the cost and are actually effective in reducing crime and increasing public safety.
Source: Huffington Post, “Florida Prisoners Serving 194 Percent More Time For Drugs Than In 1990s, Study Finds,” John Rudolf, June 6, 2012