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Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons

NCJ Number
P M Ditton; D J Wilson
Date Published
January 1999
This paper reviews three decades of sentencing reform, with attention to the nature and impact of truth-in-sentencing statutes first enacted in the States in 1984.
Indeterminate sentencing, which was common in the early 1970s, gave parole boards the authority to release offenders from prison. Under determinate sentencing, States introduced fixed prison terms that could be reduced by good-time or earned- time credits. Under mandatory minimum sentences, States added statutes that require offenders to be sentenced to a specified amount of prison time. With sentencing guidelines, States established sentencing commissions and created ranges of sentences for given offenses and offender characteristics. First enacted in 1984, truth-in-sentencing laws require offenders to serve a substantial portion of their prison sentence. Parole eligibility and good-time credits are restricted or eliminated. Violent offenders released from prison in 1996 were sentenced to serve an average of 85 months in prison. Prior to release, they served about half of their prison sentence (45 months). Under truth-in-sentencing laws that require serving 85 percent of the sentence, violent offenders would serve an average of 88 months in prison, based on the average sentence for violent offenders admitted to prison in 1996. Nearly 7 in 10 State prison admissions for a violent offense in 1997 were in States that require offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. By 1998, 27 States and the District of Columbia met the Federal Truth-in-Sentencing Incentive Grants program eligibility criteria. Eleven States adopted truth-in-sentencing laws in 1995, 1 year after the 1994 Crime Act. 14 tables and 12 references