Prison Blues


Don't do the crime if you can't do the time, go the lyrics to an old TV show's theme song. But a study by the National Center for Policy Analysis indicates that for most criminals, serving time may not be a big problem. It isn't that they enjoy spending time in jail—rather, the expected jail time for any offense is relatively small and getting smaller.

The study's author, economist Morgan O. Reynolds, explains, "Expected punishment is not the same as the length of time prisoners actually stay incarcerated." Rather, it is the median time served for an offense multiplied by four probabilities: the probabilities of being arrested for a crime, of being prosecuted after being arrested, of being convicted, and of being sent to prison if convicted.

Reynolds found that the expected punishment for murder, for example, was just 1.8 years in 1990, down from 2.3 years in 1988. The expected punishment for rape was 60 days, down from 80.5 days. For motor-vehicle theft, a criminal could expect to spend 1.5 days in jail in 1990, down from 3.8 days in 1988.

Part of the problem, Reynolds notes, is that mandatory sentences for drug convictions mean that fewer and fewer cells are available to house other offenders. But an even bigger problem, he says, is "leakage" throughout the system.

"The probability of being arrested for one of the seven major offenses—murder, rape, robbery, assault, arson, burglary, and larceny—declined from about 27 percent to 24 percent," he says. "The probability of being prosecuted [declined] from 84 percent to 82 percent, the probability of being convicted from 65 to 64 percent, and the probability of being imprisoned from 44 to 43 percent."