Faculty Activity of John Pfaff
The Myths and Realities of Correctional Severity: Evidence from the National Corrections Reporting Program on Sentencing Practices
Abstract: Though the growth in US prison populations over the past three decades--from 300,000 inmates in the 1970s to 1.6 million today--is well known, its causes are not. This paper examines one potential source of growth that has received surprisingly little rigorous attention: changes in time actually served in prison. Using offender-level data from the National Corrections Reporting Program, this paper demonstrates that median and 75th percentile times to release have not risen dramatically, and have even declined in some jurisdictions--although some of the decline appears to be caused by states increasingly incarcerating minor offenders who may not have been admitted in earlier years. In general, the results indicate that changes in admissions practices, rather than time served following admission, have played the dominant role in prison population growth. This paper also examines how offender-level traits have shaped the probability of release. The young, the Hispanic, and the violent are less likely to be released in any given period, and those over forty more likely to be so. Blacks, women, and property and drug offenders are no less likely to be released than their counterparts.