Truth-in-sentencing statutes require individuals convicted of certain types of crime to serve a substantial portion (most commonly 85 percent) of their court-imposed sentence behind bars. These statutes were designed to reduce the use of policies and procedures that allowed for the early release of inmates via “good time” credits and parole. Such laws have been developed and enacted by the federal government and in many states in response to large disparities in the sentences imposed by courts and actual time served by inmates, unequal amounts of time served by individuals committing similar types of crime, increasing rates of violent crime in the 1980s, the general “get tough on crime” movement, and public demands for the enactment of policies that hold offenders accountable for their actions.
Truth-in-sentencing statutes address several important ethical concerns within sentencing and correctional systems, as they promote consistency in sentencing individuals who commit similar types of crime and increase the likelihood that inmates will serve a substantial portion of their court-imposed sentences behind bars. Opponents of such statutes, however, suggest that these policies create ethical concerns as they do not allow for the consideration of individual-level factors and offense-specific variables surrounding the circumstances of the criminal act(s) during sentencing, in addition to promoting policies which rely on the increased use of incarceration and deterrence-based correctional efforts that focus on punishment in lieu of rehabilitation-based policies and procedures that have resulted in prison overcrowding.
Development of and Rationale Behind Truth-in-Sentencing Statutes
Throughout the past several decades, jurisdictions throughout the United States have adopted more punitive strategies toward sentencing offender populations. Prior to the mid-1970s, jurisdictions relied upon indeterminate sentencing structures, or those which utilized broad, authorized ranges in sentences for individuals convicted of crime, while allowing for case-by-case determination of institutional release by parole board members. Such practices encouraged compliance with institutional rules and regulations within correctional facilities, as they provided incentives for good behavior and compliance with institutional rules, and focused upon inmate rehabilitation and consideration of individual-level factors when determining inmates’ release dates and perceived threats to public safety.
While such policies promoted inmate compliance with correctional rules, regulations, and participation in prison-based programs, critics of such policies argued that they may be unfair, as some inmates were punished more harshly (had to serve longer sentences) than other inmates who had been convicted of similar offenses. Additionally, many opponents of such policies, including members of the general public and victim advocacy groups, voiced that such policies reduced offender accountability and were too “soft on crime,” or forgiving of the crimes for which an individual was incarcerated, as the severity of the actual punishment was not consistent with the actual sentence imposed by the court.
In the early 1970s, the effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation came into question, as a well-known review of the academic literature by Robert Martinson, published in 1974, was perceived by many policy makers, scholars, and laypersons to suggest that “nothing works” regarding rehabilitation programs for criminal offenders. This review was one of many factors which contributed to a return to the “just deserts” model of punishment, as the effectiveness of correctional rehabilitation was called into question. Additionally, increases in violent crime during the early 1980s supported the movement to more severely and uniformly sentence individuals convicted of committing specific types of crime, including certain drug-related offenses, offenses with weapons, and those committed by habitual or repeat offenders.
Such changes represented a shift that took place in many states as several abandoned, or significantly reduced the use of, indeterminate sentencing in favor of determinate sentencing structures, or those which required fixed terms or sentences for the commission of certain types of crime. Examples of such efforts included mandatory minimum sentences for individuals convicted of certain drug-related and/or violent crimes, and the adoption of sentencing guidelines aimed at reducing judicial discretion. These reforms were also met with evidence by scholars that suggested the average inmate in the United States was only serving 37 to 40 percent of his or her sentence, recommendations based on reports that suggested prisons “work” and individuals sentenced to prison should spend more time incarcerated, and suggestions that highlighted the notion that the federal system required inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences since 1984.
As a result of these recommendations, individual states were encouraged to develop and enact policies consistent with truth-in-sentencing guidelines via the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Under this act, Congress authorized funding to states that required individuals convicted of violent crimes to serve a substantial portion (at least 85 percent) of their sentence prior to their release to the community. States which complied with the requirements of this act received funding to expand the capacity of their correctional institutions in order to allow for a larger number of inmates to be incarcerated for more lengthy periods.
Many states and the federal government currently utilize truth-in-sentencing statutes, or some variation of these policies. Some critics have suggested that such policies, which are not uniform across states, have led to what Michael Tonry has termed “the fragmentation of sentencing and corrections in America.” Simply put, there is no longer a standard, uniform approach to sentencing criminal offenders in the United States as there was in the 1970s and prior to that time. Some states have continued to utilize parole and good-time credits, while others have completely abolished parole in favor of policies that require inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence; however, specific policies vary by state. While the majority of states reserve truth-in-sentencing guidelines for individuals convicted of committing violent crimes, a few states, such as Florida, require individuals convicted of all types of serious crime to be sentenced to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. Therefore, critics argue that the United States no longer has a standard approach when it comes to the sentencing and subsequent incarceration of criminal offenders, as states may differ in slightly different or substantial ways.
Implications of Truth-in-Sentencing Statutes
Several important implications associated with the development and implementation of truth-in-sentencing statutes and related sentencing reform legislation in the 1980s and 1990s have resulted in major changes in sentencing and correctional practices in the United States. Many advantages and disadvantages of the implementation of these sentencing statutes in many jurisdictions have been discussed by policy makers, politicians, and scholars. One of the primary rationales for the implementation of truth-in-sentencing policies was to increase sentence consistency by more closely aligning the amount of time the offender served with the actual sentence imposed by the court within jurisdictions that align with these provisions.
Because these statutes often do not consider individual-level factors, there is less room for disparities in sentencing based on individual factors such as age, race/ethnicity, gender, and geography. Further, advocates for truth-in-sentencing statutes suggest that these sentencing structures allow for the utilization of practices that are consistent with the ideals of restorative justice and victim advocacy, as victims of crime may feel that the individual who perpetrated the crime against them is being justly punished and held accountable for their actions.
As such, it is important to point out that such policies focus on punishment and retribution over rehabilitation, which may be viewed differently by individuals based upon their philosophies of effective punishment and the ethical issues therein. In this vein, proponents of movements such as “get tough on crime” or “lock ‘em up” will likely favor such efforts, which are consistent with the crime control model of criminal justice. Finally, advocates have suggested that these practices promote efficiency in prison management and regulation.
Critics of truth-in-sentencing statutes have suggested that the implementation of these policies has resulted in many negative consequences, including increases in prison populations, prison crowding, and mounting costs associated with housing inmates for longer periods of time. The implementation of such policies required states that adopted them to build more correctional facilities to house a greater number of inmates being housed for significantly longer periods than they would have been under indeterminate sentencing structures.
Early release via parole and good-time credits were significantly reduced or abolished in several states, which significantly reduced the role of discretion in release decisions by correctional authorities. The goals of sentencing were dramatically altered and changed from focusing efforts on offender rehabilitation and community reentry to a revitalized focus on deterrence, incapacitation, and “just deserts” models of crime control. Proponents of truth-in-sentencing laws believed such policies would convey the message, “If you do the crime, you’ll do the time” to potential or repeat offender populations.
Too Many Incarcerated?
Several scholars suggest the United States excessively relies on the use of incarceration as a form of punishment, and tough-on-crime reforms, such as truth-in-sentencing statutes, are responsible for these trends. In 2008, 2.3 million Americans, or one in 100 people, were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails as a result of dramatic and significant changes made to sentencing policies and practices in recent decades. Several opponents of such “get tough on crime” reforms have additionally argued that correctional facilities simply “warehouse” inmates under crowded, often inhumane conditions, where little to no treatment and rehabilitative programming are available. One may ask, is this type of punishment ethical? Should inmates be afforded rehabilitative programs and services during a period of punishment/incarceration? While there are differences in opinion regarding these questions, few would argue with the premise that the overreaching issue concerns public safety. Roughly 95 percent of incarcerated inmates will return to the community. Does the public want these individuals to return to society worse off, the same, or better off than they were prior to prison entry?
This begs an answer to a very important question: Have the polices which have resulted in the expansion of prisons reduced crime and increased public safety in the United States? There is no simple answer to this question, as many factors may contribute to reductions in rates of violent crime. While scholars suggest that the increased use of incarceration has at least some impact on the amount of violent crime in society, prominent scholars have noted that as the United States continues to incarcerate greater numbers of individuals, it reaches a tipping point of “diminishing returns,” in which individuals with less serious criminal histories or those who do not pose significant threats to public safety are serving more lengthy prison stays when they may have been better served by alternatives to incarceration such as diversion programs. Additionally, several variables may contribute to fluctuations in rates of violent crime, including changes in police practices, economic conditions, and demographic factors; and the utilization of less punitive forms of punishment require consideration and blur the findings of evaluations that attempt to evaluate effectiveness of such get-tough policies.
Costs of Incarceration
In addition to considering whether more punitive sentencing policies are effective at reducing crime in society, one must also consider several additional monetary and social costs that are related to incarcerating individuals for longer periods of time. Researchers and correctional administrators have discussed the mounting costs associated with locking people up for extended time periods, including mental health issues that may develop or intensify during an extended period of incarceration, in addition to physical health costs, which may be associated with providing geriatric health care to aged inmate populations. Researchers have also presented several “collateral consequences”— those which extend beyond the punishment of incarceration, which may be experienced by children and families of individuals who are incarcerated for extended periods of time.
At the very least, several scholars have recently suggested that policies aimed at increasing or maintaining the current reliance on incarceration should be reevaluated. Steps should be taken to identify the individuals in greatest need of incarceration in order to make such policies more efficient by targeting the offenders in greatest need of incarceration, should they pose a significant threat to public safety.
What is certain, however, is that such policies significantly complicate the process of offender release from prison to the community. As individuals serve significant portions of their sentences, often in crowded conditions, they are more likely to lose ties with significant others and family members within the community, and to experience exacerbated difficulties associated with obtaining basic needs such as obtaining housing and employment upon prison release. Additionally, as the focus of sentencing and subsequent punishment has shifted away from rehabilitation and toward incapacitation and punishment, significantly fewer resources are available to meet the rehabilitative needs of inmates during a period of incarceration. As more individuals are incarcerated for extended periods of time, resources are spent on meeting basic needs (e.g., housing, clothing, health care, more staff), than on in-prison programs designed to rehabilitate individuals and prepare them for re-entry into the community.
- Austin, J. A. and T. Fabelo. The Diminishing Returns of Increased Incarceration. Washington, DC: JFA Institute, 2004.
- Ditton, P. M. and D. J. Wilson. Truth in Sentencing in State Prisons. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.
- Irwin, J. and J. Austin, J. It’s About Time: America’s Imprisonment Binge. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2012.
- Tonry, M. Reconsidering Indeterminate and Structured Sentencing. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.
- Wilson, J. Q. “Crime and Public Policy.” In Crime, James Q. Wilson and Joan Petersilia, eds. San Francisco: ICS Press, 1995.
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