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Sentencing: Alternatives - The Costs Of Alternative Sentencing Programs

prison probation intensive sanctions

Most of the enthusiasm for alternative sanctions in modern times comes from its presumed cost-effectiveness. Dollars might be saved if enough prison-bound offenders are diverted to alternatives. The costs per day per offender for imprisonment are much higher than costs per day for intensive supervision. As shown in Table 1, for example, the annual costs of housing a prisoner in the United States is more than $20,000, compared to the annual costs of intensive probation, which are just below $3,000. Such comparisons fuel the popular notion that alternative sanctions are much cheaper than prison. (Table 1 contains the average annual costs of various correctional options, computed from Camp and Camp).

Of course, there is much more to comparing corrections costs than simply comparing per capita costs of sanctions. Intensive probation will be more expensive than most people expect if, for example, greater surveillance and more drug testing increase technical violations, court appearances, and revocations to prison. Or, cost savings will not be realized if program participants come from regular probation caseloads, rather than being diverted from the more expensive jail or prison sentences. In fact, this is exactly what the research evidence shows often happens—programs begun as prison or jail diversion programs end up being probationenhancement programs (Petersilia and Turner).

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