Civil Liberties

Justice Means Savings

The cost of sentencing


In April, the U.S. Sentencing Commission proposed adjustments in how courts apply federal mandatory minimum sentences in drug crimes. Those adjustments will likely go into effect later this year. The new guidelines would reduce average terms for about 70 percent of federal drug prisoners by about a year.

The commission also did the math on what the government would save if it applied those new guidelines retroactively-that is, springing people already in jail after they'd served what would be the newer minimum. A May internal memo found that if courts began to apply "the full reduction possible in each case" from the new standards, it would save the prison system "83,525 bed years."

The website Vox translated those "bed years" into dollars, applying a standard figure of $29,000 for the cost of keeping someone in prison per year. It found that applying retroactive mercy to those in prison on drug-related mandatory minimums could save about $2.4 billion, spread over years as individual prisoners hit those new minimums.