Time Served in State Prisons for Serious Offenses 1981-2009

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The Rose Institute of State and Local Government presents its second comprehensive report on crime and criminal justice in the United States, which tracks the length of prison sentences actually served for a number of serious crimes.

Our previous research, The Crime Funnel, displayed the drop-off in the number of persons at each level as they progress through the state criminal justice systems, including how many convicted offenders are sentenced to state prison. This report focuses on the severity of the punishment inflicted by measuring the length of time served in state prison before the inmate’s first release from his prison sentence.

The length of the sentence imposed and the resulting time served broadly indicates how seriously the community judges the severity of each crime. First, the greater the harm caused, the longer the state typically seeks to imprison an individual in the interest of protecting members of the public from further acts. Second, longer sentences may deter this offender or others from committing other serious crimes and may also reinforce moral judgments that inhibit citizens from considering crime in the first place.

After compiling data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP), which collects offender-level administrative data annually on prison admissions and releases from a coalition of participating states, our team compiled 19 graphs to display and analyze the changes in the criminal justice system over the last two decades. By displaying average (mean) and median time served for the period of 1986 to 2009 (with some data back to 1981), we are able to look at overall trends in punishment for a number of different crimes and crime categories, and thus gain some insight into the punishment priorities of our criminal justice system.

Beginning with an overall picture, this report looks at the four main offense categories: violent, property, drug-related, and public order. Violent crimes are then broken down by the specific offense, starting with homicide, which includes murder, non-negligent manslaughter, and negligent manslaughter. Rape, kidnapping, assault, and robbery round out the list of violent crimes. The report then examines property crimes, drug offenses, and public-order offenses. The final section of the report presents data on the number of prisoners released each year for the various crimes.

It is our hope that these graphs will assist readers and researchers in shedding light on how the nature of punishment in our criminal justice system changed over the past two decades. The team would like to thank Professor Joseph Bessette of Claremont McKenna College’s Department of Government for his leadership and guidance on this project. His extensive knowledge of the criminal justice system proved an invaluable resource throughout the entire process.

Lane Corrigan ’17
Wesley Whitaker ’18