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The Price of Leniency

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The June 12 news story "New Criminal Record: 7.2 Million," on the number of people under supervision in the nation's criminal justice system, reported on the financial burden of running correctional systems without mentioning the savings resulting from crimes averted. Experience suggests that shortened sentences and reduced supervision of offenders released from prison carry a higher cost, especially in human terms, than the savings these shortsighted policies generate.

In 2006, the most recent year for which complete data are available, police received the fewest reports of violent crime and property crime since 1977. What was the cause? Research has shown that, with some exceptions, crime rates decline as the incarceration rate rises. In other words, while the number of people under correctional supervision has gone up, crime has gone down.

Research on state prisoners shows that among drug offenders, nearly 67 percent were rearrested within three years of release. For violent offenders, nearly 62 percent were rearrested within three years of release. Overall, more than 67 percent of prisoners were rearrested within three years for committing new offenses.

The cost of these new crimes goes beyond prisons. The most conservative estimate for the cost of violent and property crimes in the United States is more than $17 billion a year -- and that's just direct, immediate cost. This leaves out such costs as crime victims' struggle to be made whole.

Let there be no mistake -- releasing criminals early may help save money in the short term, but not in the long term.

JEFFREY L. SEDGWICK

Director

Bureau of Justice Statistics

U.S. Department of Justice

Washington

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