Would Judges Sentence Fewer People to Prison if Local Governments Had to Pay for Their Prison Stays?

States and local governments have figured out that financing structures matter for sentencing decisions.

States and local governments have figured out that financing structures matter for sentencing decisions. Shutterstock

 

Connecting state and local government leaders

In a case where counties had to bear the cost of incarceration, local prosecutors and judges dismissed more cases. For one researcher, this raised a key question: If local governments had to pay for prison sentences, would incarceration rates decrease?

The U.S. criminal justice system is unique in many ways—its scale being one of the most notable factors. The incarceration rate is four times the world average.

Why, exactly, the number of people behind bars has grown so large is something many researchers have studied. One new study published in the November issue of the Journal of Public Economics suggests that the cost structure may be partly to blame. 

Aurélie Ouss, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, explains in the study that in most jurisdictions, a convicted defendant’s stay in prison is paid for by the state, but sentencing decisions are made by local prosecutors and judges, following arrests made by police. Local governments, therefore, end up bearing only a fraction of the costs of the sentences handed out, leading to what some researchers refer to as a “correctional free lunch

Ouss said that she became interested in studying the economic models of crime and law enforcement first as a theoretical project. “The prevailing view is that public officials are trying to maximize safety subject to budget constraints,” she said. “But that doesn’t take into account that a main feature of the U.S. criminal justice system is that there are a lot of people involved, not one centralized decision maker analyzing the costs and benefits of their actions.”

Ouss realized that in the controlled environment of a lab experiment, people were more punitive when they were only responsible for a fraction of the costs of their decisions. “I wondered if this would also bear out in the real world,” she said. 

She found a natural policy experiment in the 1996 California Juvenile Justice Realignment. Before 1996, incarceration of teenagers who were arrested and adjudicated in juvenile court was largely paid for by the state correctional system. The realignment strategy, however, shifted a larger share of the costs onto counties, essentially making local courts and public safety systems more responsible for the financial consequences of time spent in correctional facilities. 

In analyzing data from the National Corrections Reporting Program, Ouss found that the number of juveniles tried in counties and sent to state correctional facilities dropped by 40% to 60%. In two counties that were most intensely studied, Santa Clara and Orange, this change was largely driven by an increase in cases that were dismissed by prosecutors and judges. The youths on trial weren’t diverted into other punishments that the local government might have to pay for like county diversion programs. 

Overall, admissions to state juvenile correctional facilities dropped by 68% after the Juvenile Justice Realignment relative to the admissions of 19-year-olds to adult prisons. Ouss used that group as a comparison to see if prison admissions were dropping across the board.

“More youth were kept out of incarceration altogether as a result of the change in costs,” Ouss wrote. “This suggests that prison subsidizing led to over-reliance on confinement.” In other words, “financing structures matter for sentencing decisions.”

Other states and local governments have figured out the same thing in recent years. In 2010, the Missouri Sentencing Advisory Commission made the costs of different punishments available to judges in an effort to get them to think more critically about sentencing decisions at a time when the state was facing severe budget woes. The same idea has been considered in Vermont. In 2018, Ohio started charging counties a penalty of $72 per day for every person they sent to prison on low-level offenses that could be dealt with by probation.

Also in 2018, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner started requiring prosecutors in his office to tell judges how much prison sentences cost, noting that a year of incarceration, with a price tag of around $42,000, would pay the salary of a teacher, social worker, or firefighter. “You may use these comparisons on the record,” he said. The district attorneys in San Francisco and Loudoun County, Virginia, implemented similar policies this year.

“Recent efforts to reduce the prison population have focused on approaches like diversion, large-scale releases, changes in the use of mandatory minima, or not charging some offenses,” Ouss wrote in the paper. “My findings highlight the importance of incentive structures … If these results in juvenile justice replicate in the adult context, cost internalization could offer a path to reduce incarceration without increasing crime.”

Whether the findings of the new study can be easily applied to the adult system isn’t clear. The 1990s marked the beginning of an era where activists and government leaders pushed to keep teenagers out of juvenile lockups, which were often inappropriate for them and dangerous. This trend may have influenced county decision makers to drop more cases. Judges are also generally more lenient with kids.

But one thing is clear, Ouss said, when local leaders have to think more critically about how to pay for the sentences they hand out, they act differently and often less punitively. 

“We know incarceration is costing us billions. What we don’t really think about is who’s paying for what,” she said. “Local finances are really important to look at when you want to see which policies are developed and which aren't. This could be a very powerful lever for criminal justice reform.”

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

NEXT STORY: People Convicted of Crimes as Young Adults May See a Chance at Early Release in D.C.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.