Mandatory Minimum Penalties: Their Effects on Crime, Sentencing Disparities, and Justice System Expenditures

7. The Economic impact of mandatory sentences (continued)

7. The Economic impact of mandatory sentences (continued)

7.2 Effects on Prison Populations

A study using data from the six most populous US states found that rising prison populations from 1977-88 were strongly influenced by explicit changes in imprisonment policies, including the introduction of MMS in these states (Cohen and Canela-Cacho, 1994). The authors found that both increases in the expected certainty and length of incarceration during the period played a role in increasing prison populations.

Wooldredge (1996) examined the relationship between state-level sentencing policies and inmate crowding for 1991. He found that states with larger populations were more likely to have longer minimum prison sentences and more mandatory prison terms for felony convictions. These MMS, in turn, result in more long-term prison inmates. As this population ages, more medical and other resources will be required to accommodate this situation (Chaneles, 1987). The unintended consequences of MMS, especially those that are longer in duration, will become more obvious and likely more dire as time goes on and more long-term offenders are placed in the system.

Bales and Dees (1992) note that the creation of a large sub-population of long-term offenders as a result of MMS may produce management problems for institutions. This may especially be the case where MMS preclude the acquisition of “good-time” credits by inmates, thereby leaving little incentive for them to conform to institutional rules. The authors further assert that, in jurisdictions such as Florida, MMS may have the unintended effects of accelerating the early release of other inmates, due to court-ordered ceilings on prison populations. The greater the number of long-term inmates serving MMS, the shorter the sentences of other inmates need to be in order to keep the prison population under the ceiling. In Los Angeles County jail, for example, inmates currently serve just 45% of their sentence to make room for defendants awaiting trial (Markel, 1996). Shortening the sentences or accelerating releases of offenders not subject to MMS may, in turn, increase public disapproval, the rationale for introducing MMS in the first place.

California's “Three Strikes” law has been projected to require an additional 20 prisons in the short-term and to cost upwards of $5 billion (Owens, 1995). Each sentence of 25 years to life will cost the taxpayer at least half a million dollars (Markel, 1996). The costs of such laws accrue over time as the additional time served under Three Strikes and similar legislation may take effect years after the passing of sentence (Schultz, 2000). A Texas recidivist statute, even more all-encompassing than California's in its inclusion of minor property offences as “strikes”, helped increase the state's prison building budget from $64.7 million in 1974 to $3.7 billion in 1994. In addition, the cost of operating the state's prisons rose six-fold from 1982 to 1992. MMS introduced in Oregon to be imposed for 16 felonies is expected to require 6,085 additional prison beds in the next five years at a cost of $461 million for construction and more than $100 million per year for operation (Bogan and Factor, 1995).

Vitiello (1997) argues that legislatures in states with Three Strikes laws will be forced to allocate resources away from prevention programs and law enforcement to pay for prison construction and maintenance. Fewer street officers will mean a lower certainty of punishment. The long-term result, he conjectures, is that resources will be expended increasingly to incarcerate an older and less dangerous prison population, while younger offenders will face a lower chance of being caught. These more active offenders will thus be on the street longer before they are incapacitated.

MMS calling for long prison terms will carry prohibitive costs due to sizable increases in jury trials and prison populations. These costs may weaken the justice system's response to crimes and offenders not subject to MMS, as resources are shifted from these other areas. Lengthy MMS will yield an increasingly older prison population, creating a perverse effect whereby prisons will house more “costly” but, at the same time, less dangerous inmates.

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