Sentencing and Corrections - Sentencing And Time Served
offenses prison laws convicted
In 2000 state and federal courts convicted some 984,000 adults of felonies, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). Of those, 924,700 were adults convicted in state courts and 59,123 were convicted in federal jurisdictions. Some 68 percent of convicted felons were sentenced to a period of incarceration in 2000. Of those, 40 percent went to state prisons and 28 percent to local jails. Those in jails were usually confined for less than one year.
In 2000 the average felony sentence imposed by state courts was 36 months in prison. On average, violent offenders served the most time (66 months), compared to averages of 27 months for property offenses, 30 months for drug offenses, and 25 months for weapons offenses. (See Table 6.1.)
The length of a prison sentence was almost always longer than the time actually served by a convicted felon in 2000. In state prisons, the actual time served was about 55 percent of the overall sentence. Most states (but not the federal system) have parole boards that determine when a prisoner will be paroled (released from prison). In the federal system and in most states, prisoners can earn time credits for good behavior ("good time") to shorten their time in prison.
"Three Strikes" Laws
As of 2004, 26 states and the federal government had "Three Strikes" laws, which require repeat criminals to serve enhanced prison terms if they are convicted of three violent felonies. Most of these laws were enacted during the 1990s in response to a significant rise in crime, particularly violent crime, during the first half of the decade. The consequence of these laws was a rise in the prison population, along with its attendant costs.
Opponents of Three Strikes laws argue that the laws demand even more prisons to house prisoners for longer
TABLE 6.1 Length of felony sentences imposed by state courts, 2000
Average maximum sentence length (in months) for felons sentenced to:
Most serious conviction offense
Note: Means exclude sentences to death or to life in prison. Sentence length data were available for 852,616 incarceration and probation sentences.
SOURCE: "Lengths of Felony Sentences Imposed by State Courts, 2000," in "Criminal Sentencing Statistics," U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, DC, December 10, 2003 [Online] http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/sent.htm [accessed March 8, 2004]
periods. Also, reducing the possibility of parole results in more and more elderly prisoners, who are statistically much less likely to commit crimes than younger prisoners, and who have increasing health-care needs. By the year 2000 many states that had passed Three Strikes laws were wondering how to pay for more prisons and longer incarcerations.
Since 2000 several states have loosened their mandatory minimum sentencing laws or taken other measures to reduce their prison populations. For example, in 2001 Mississippi adopted an early-release provision for nonviolent offenders, and states such as California, Texas, North Carolina, Connecticut, Idaho, and Arkansas have passed legislation mandating the diversion of nonviolent drug offenders to community-based treatment programs.
On April 1, 2002, the United States Supreme Court agreed to consider whether California's Three Strikes law,
FIGURE 6.1 Capital punishment: Persons executed, 1930–2002
considered to be one of the toughest in the country, violates the Eighth Amendment's ban against cruel and unusual punishment. Over half (57 percent) of California prisoners sentenced under the Three Strikes law were convicted of nonviolent third-strike felonies, including drug possession and petty theft, and are serving mandatory sentences of 25 years to life without the possibility of parole. In March 2003 the Supreme Court, in a five–four decision, upheld the right of states to impose lengthy sentences on repeat felony offenders, regardless of the relative seriousness of the "third-strike" felony.
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