Extending prison sentences can reduce recidivism, but it's also hugely expensive.

When it comes to local budget decisions, the goal of fiscal balance often means that one type of expenditure is cut so that another can be increased. If fire and police departments need more, for example, the libraries get less. These balances and tradeoffs happen every budget cycle at various levels of government. The resulting sacrifice has become institutional.

But with the prospect of rising crime and ex-cons roaming the streets, the general public seems to be more open to diverting funds away from other non-crime-fighting programs to help maintain public safety. In the early 1990s, the state of Georgia updated its prison policies to increase sentencing for parole-eligible criminals under the assumption that more time in the slammer would mean less crime when convicts became ex-convicts and got back out on the streets. According to a new analysis, that has proven to be true, to a small degree. But keeping those criminals in prison for longer amounts of time has also greatly increased the cost to taxpayers. The benefits of this policy, it turns out, are far outweighed by the costs.

Spending more time in prison lowers the likelihood that prisoners will commit crimes once they're released, but also increases the public costs of the prison system, according to a soon-to-be-published study by Peter Ganong, a doctoral candidate in economics at Harvard. In his study, Ganong looked at data from more than 18,000 parolees in Georgia between 1992 and 1994. His threshold for reduced crime is whether released prisoners returned to prison within three years of being released. He found that, on average, adding a year to prisoner terms results in about a 14 percent reduction in recidivism.

And though it might sound good that crimes are reduced by more prison time, the types of crimes that are reduced aren't exactly major threats to public safety – including minor parole violations like missing meetings with parole officers or failing drug tests. The murders and rapes people think about when worrying about public safety aren't really affected.

In the U.S., the number of people either in prison or under some form of state supervision has risen by about 50 percent from 1993 to 2009. The country's population growth over that time period was about 6 percent. And of all the prisoners admitted to state prisons in 2010, about 35 percent were parole violators, according to this report from the Department of Justice [PDF]. Ganong's work suggests that longer prison terms in Georgia are merely reducing the amount of parolees who violate parole and end up back in prison.

His work also suggests that the state of Georgia, and the communities within it, are paying dearly to keep people in prison longer all for the relatively minor reduction in parole violations. The per-prisoner annual operating cost of Georgia state prisons is roughly $25,300. Ganong estimates the cost of crimes committed over the next 10 years by the average released prisoner would be, at the most, about $12,000 per prisoner. So, essentially, the state is paying $25,300 to prevent $1,200 worth of crimes per year.

Of course, not all the crimes prevented are minor. There's no exact way of knowing for sure, but it's statistically probable that an increased prison sentence has prevented at least some of the more major crimes people tend to worry about. Which raises the question for public officials: is it worth the high cost of keeping people in prison longer to prevent a lot of minor crimes and maybe a few major ones, too?

"There's been a period in America where we’ve had a massive increase in incarceration, and I think that was accompanied by a sense that this incarceration was very effective at reducing crimes," says Ganong. "Now states and cities are facing real fiscal hardships, and they're asking 'do we cut schools or do we cut prisons?'"

He argues that the perceived public safety benefits of keeping people locked up longer can be greatly outweighed by the less noticeable costs of propping up the prison system to support increased incarceration. He says he's hopeful that his work will help officials to craft policies that take into consideration the complexity of improving public safety and reducing crime.

"These are the tradeoffs we face with hospitals or schools or any decision that a city government is facing," says Ganong. "This is one piece of that question."

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