At one point in our nation's history, legislators turned to studies that showed longer, harsher prison sentences would cause a drop in the crime rates. While prison sentences have, in some instances, reduced the amount of criminal activity, the PEW Center on the States says that they have only accounted for, at most, a one-third reduction. With the overall crime rate dropping, it appears that the need for longer prison sentences is ending.
The PEW study indicates that the United States is at the point where more frequent and longer prison sentences will have little to no effect on the crime rate, especially in the case of non-violent offenders. If Maryland keeps locking up people convicted of drug crimes, for example, it will do little to reduce recidivism and drug use in the state. Using other forms of punishment may do more to prevent people convicted of drug crimes from getting in trouble with the law again.
Not only would alternative sentencing programs potentially reduce recidivism, it will also do a lot to cut Maryland's state costs. PEW researchers have said that across the country the states spend an estimated $51 billion a year on corrections and nearly all of that is spent on prisons. Though it is unclear how much Maryland specifically spends on incarcerating violent and non-violent offenders, it is likely a sizeable amount.
One of the biggest reasons why states are paying so much more for prisons is not, however, because of a rise in crime. Rather, with more states increasing the average prison sentence, it is costing a lot more money to run prisons and pay for incarcerated individuals. In fact, prison sentences have doubled since 1990.
As people convicted of drug crimes are increasingly sent to prison for long periods of time, Maryland can expect to see their prison bills continue to soar in the years to come.
Source: Southern California Public Radio, "A PEW study finds lengthy prison terms cost a lot, with little return," Rina Palta, June 6, 2012