A prisoner’s length of stay is driven by a complicated mix of crime, conviction rates, policies and practices within the legislative, executive and judicial segments of government. There are four primary factors that influence prison length of stay: criminal penalty statues; legislature funding for prisons and alternatives to incarceration; court policies and decisions; and release policies by corrections departments, parole boards and the executive branch.
Criminal statutes: At a basic level, a prisoner’s average length of stay is determined by the type of crime for which that individual is convicted. If a state focuses on cracking down on drug activity and the overall prison population tilts toward more drug offenders, it is likely the length of stay will be shorter than if a state focused on convicting violent offenders.
Legislative priorities: States’ approaches to shaping sentencing varies, but another baseline for determining average length of stay is how the legislature defines sentences, including minimum and maximum terms in prison. More rigid guidelines for courts and agencies to follow will often translate to longer lengths of stay.
Courts and prosecutors: How prosecutors charge or offer plea bargains to defendants will also affect lengths of stay. National estimates suggest more than nine out of 10 cases involve plea bargains. When this discretion is limited, length of stay in prison goes up.
Agency release decisions: Using factors such as conduct while in custody, criminal history or offense type, parole boards often have a fair amount of discretion in referring inmates to parole supervision. Some parole boards like to know electronic monitoring, treatment or training programs are in place prior to recommending parole. Programs such as a GEO Care/BI day reporting center or residential reentry center offers good examples of programs that support parole in facilitating successful community reintegration.
With states focused on driving costs down, average length of stay is an important variable many leaders are eyeing closely. A recent report by the Pew Center on the States, “Time Served,” reviews prison lengths of stay in depth, including a state-by-state review of prison statistics.