Prioritize funding for violence reduction and victim and survivor services
Long prison sentences are typically established by legislatures and imposed by courts with an expectation that they will protect public safety by deterring and incapacitating people who would otherwise perpetrate serious crime and violence. The Task Force acknowledges the important roles of incapacitation and deterrence in sentencing, but a review of existing evidence, along with its own original research, finds that the final months—and even years—of long prison terms produce diminishing public safety benefits because they incarcerate people beyond the point at which they are likely to continue committing crimes.1 At the same time, the Task Force finds there are a wide array of community-based and law-enforcement strategies that are effective at preventing and reducing violence. Those approaches were summarized by the Council on Criminal Justice Violent Crime Working Group.
Building upon these two findings, the Task Force recommends that, as states and the federal government reduce their use of long sentences, they should redirect some of the resulting savings into community-level, evidence-based strategies that prevent violence and provide support to victims and survivors of violent crime. This recommendation covers both sentencing decisions by courts and release decisions by paroling authorities, incentivizing key actors at both ends of the system and potentially generating savings from parole in the near term.
In making this recommendation, the Task Force acknowledges that the nation’s prisons are often chronically under-resourced, and that calculations of actual savings must be based on several factors, including assessments of corrections agencies’ capacity to staff and provide effective programming. At the same time, by prioritizing programs and strategies that prevent violence, the Task Force believes the nation can more effectively reduce violent victimization and the harm it causes to individuals, families, and communities.
While there is a rich body of research on the relationship between incarceration and crime, much less is known about how prison sentences of 10 years or more affect public safety. The Task Force on Long Sentences commissioned a literature review on empirical evidence of the relationship between sentence length and public safety. The relationship is complex and requires further research.
States and the federal government should shift funds from avoided costs—or cost savings from reductions of populations serving long sentences—into evidence-based strategies and programs proven effective at reducing violent crime and supporting victims and survivors.
State legislatures and Congress should establish Violent Crime Reduction Incentive Programs that require budget or auditor’s offices to track and publish on an annual basis prison expenditures that are avoided and saved from reductions in sentences imposed and served of longer than 10 years.
Cost avoidance and savings should be tabulated at a judicial district, county, or other local level of government and deposited into accounts held for the jurisdiction that generated the savings. (See below for recommended structure for funding calculations and allocations.)
Funds should be used exclusively to support three purposes:
- Reduce violent crime through evidence-based strategies in communities
- Provide effective trauma-informed services and supports to victims and survivors of violence in communities with high rates of violent crime
- Strengthen reentry support for people finishing long sentences
Legislatures should consider appropriating seed funding based on communities’ rates of violent crime when savings from long sentence reductions may not accrue until out-years.
Proposed Funding Structure
- Baseline: Calculate baseline long sentences imposed by judicial districts, counties or other local units of government: aggregate numbers of months imposed beyond 120 months (annual average over the three years prior to the program effective date). Example: In a small jurisdiction, only one person a year gets a long sentence. Over three prior years, one person is sentenced to 12 years (144 months), one to 15 years (180 months), and one to 20 years (240 months). Baseline long sentence rate is (144-120) + (180-120) + (240-120) = 204 months / 3 years = 68 months in excess.
- Annual bed savings: Going forward, calculate annual savings by judicial districts, counties, or other units of local government: baseline minus the annual cumulative average of months imposed beyond 120. Example: Those three people are sentenced instead to 10 years, 12 years and 15 years. Annual (120-120) + (144-120) + (180-120) / 3 years = 28 months in excess. 68 (baseline) minus 28 = 40 months averted.
- Annual cost savings: State budget/finance agency calculates annual savings from reduced long sentences imposed: number of months averted x the marginal, average or stepped-up monthly prison expenditures. Example: 40 bed-months averted x $1,000 per month marginal cost (for example) = $40,000 savings
- Fund administration: Savings are deposited into Violent Crime Reduction funds for each district, county, or local unit of government.
- Permissible uses: The state criminal justice planning agency (formally known as the State Administering Agency or “SAA”) should establish criteria for the appropriate use of Violent Crime Reduction funds and approve local spending plans. At least 75% of funds should be used for programs and practices that have been shown effective by scientific evidence to reduce violent crime and recidivism and/or provide effective trauma-informed services to victims of violence; up to 25% of funds could be used for experimental approaches that have a sound basis in theory and practice.
- Frontloading: Funds should begin to accrue immediately from the Release Incentive (see below), but because actual dollar savings from the sentencing incentive are unlikely to accrue until out-years, the legislature should consider appropriating seed funding, based on the judicial districts’ rates of violent crime.
- Same cost calculations as above, in states with discretionary parole.
- Fund sharing: Parole agency keeps 50% of the calculated savings for its use in providing evidence-based supervision and support to people exiting incarceration and to victims and survivors; the other half is deposited into the Violent Crime Reduction funds for each district, county, or unit of local government.