How to Reduce Incarceration? Change Prosecutors’ Incentives

Brennan Center for Justice

By Bryan Furst

In his first year as district attorney in Philadelphia, Larry Krasner is making waves for his reform-minded approach to fixing some of the most fundamental problems in our justice system. Among other innovative strategies, he is requiring prosecutors in his office to justify the cost of a prison sentence before asking taxpayers to foot the bill.

Krasner’s method, released as part of a much-lauded memo outlining several progressive new practices, forces those imposing the punishment to confront and explain the costs of it — monetary and otherwise. Sending someone to prison in Pennsylvania costs around $42,000 a year by conservative estimates. So if a prosecutor is requesting a five-year sentence, they would have to justify not only an approximate $210,000 cost to taxpayers but also the decision to interrupt the convicted person’s connection to family, employment, and access to public benefits. Publicly stating the costs of incarceration, goes the thinking, will incentivize prosecutors to push for shorter sentences or even find alternatives to time behind bars.

Americans pay tens of billions of dollars each year in taxes to run and maintain state prisons, which currently incarcerate more than 1.3 million men, women, and children. Though the state government foots the bill, it is often county prosecutors who have the most power to send people to prison. This blank check on admissions creates a tragic paradox: It is easier and cheaper for the county if a prosecutor sends someone to state prison rather than diverts them into community-based alternatives to incarceration. Combined with office cultures that reward convictions and long sentences, prosecutors are routinely incentivized to perpetuate mass incarceration.

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