Corrections in the United States is a source of immense controversy. There are endless articles from advocates calling for prison populations to be cut in half, and President Biden supports the Cut 50 movement. Corrections and the judiciary are accused of being overwhelmingly harsh, possibly draconian. The narrative of prisons is no longer incapacitation because of dangerousness or justice for the victim.
Now we have data from The Bureau Of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice stating that most offenders in prison serve two years or less, and most violent offenders serve less than three years. The median amount of time served was 1.3 years. Persons released from state prison served an average of 44% of their maximum sentence.
The Highest Rate Of Incarceration?
America is supposed to have the highest rate of incarceration in the world. The Xinjiang internment camps, officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers by the government of China may have detained up to 1.5 million people, mostly Uyghurs but also including Kazakhs, Kyrgyz and other ethnic Turkic Muslims, Christians as well as some foreign citizens such as Kazakhstanis, Wikipedia. These numbers are beyond those in China’s formal justice system.
Beyond raw numbers, the rate of those held by other totalitarian states may be immense. The total prison population in the U.S. declined from 1,464,400 at year-end 2018 to 1,430,800 at year-end 2019, a 2% decrease, Bureau Of Justice Statistics. Regardless, the United States incarcerates more offenders than most countries.
Fifty-eight percent of state male offenders are “currently” serving sentences for violent crimes, Bureau Of Justice Statistics. The percentage would be much higher if criminal history was included. If you include repeat arrests and convictions, criminal history would probably explain the numbers in state prisons.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of crimes are not reported and most reported crimes are not solved. Many “solved” are dropped from prosecution and the overwhelming percentage of those prosecuted are plea-bargained to a lesser crime (i.e, robberies become misdemeanor assaults).
Returns To The Justice System
The most common understanding of recidivism is based on state data from the US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, stating that two-thirds (68 percent) of prisoners released were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and three-quarters (77 percent) were arrested within five years.
Within 3 years of release, 49.7% of inmates either had an arrest that resulted in a conviction with a disposition of a prison sentence or were returned to prison without a new conviction because they violated a technical condition of their release, as did 55.1% of inmates within 5 years of release, Offender Reentry.
The overwhelming majority of those returned to prison are for new crimes, not technical violations, Technical Violations Versus New Crimes.
Bureau Of Justice Statistics Data On Time Served In Prison (direct quotes)
Two-thirds of offenders released from state prison in 2018 served less than 2 years in prison before their initial release.
While 1 in 23 violent offenders (4%) served 20 years or more before their initial release, over half of violent offenders (57%) were released in less than 3 years.
About 1 in 5 state prisoners released in 2018 had served less than 6 months before their initial release.
Average And Median Years Served
The average time served by state prisoners released in 2018, from their date of initial admission to their date of initial release, was 2.7 years.
The median amount of time served (the middle value in the range of time served, with 50% of offenders serving more and 50% serving less) was 1.3 years.
By offense type, the median time served was 17.5 years for murder, 7.2 years for rape, 17 months for drug trafficking, and 9 months for drug possession.
Percentage Of Sentence Served
Persons released from state prison in 2018 served an average of 44% of their maximum sentence length before their initial release.
State prisoners serving time for rape and initially released in 2018 served an average of 68% of their sentence, and those serving time for murder served an average of 58% of their sentence.
Offenders released from state prison in 2018 after serving time for drug possession or drug trafficking had served less than 40% of their sentence, on average.
Offenders With Differing Sentences
Persons serving less than one year in state prison represented 42% of first releases in 2018. Among persons released from state prison in 2018 after serving 20 years or more, 70% had been imprisoned for murder or rape.
Violent offenders released from state prison made up less than a third (30%) of all initial releases in 2018.
Source Of Data
These findings are based on prisoner records from the National Corrections Reporting Program (NCRP), which collects records on prison admissions and releases.
All statistics in this report are based on state prisoners’ first release after serving time for a given offense.
They exclude persons who were released after serving time for an offense, returned to prison for violating community supervision, and then were released again.
The report is based on NCRP data from 44 states. In 2018, these states were responsible for 97% of all persons released from state prisons nationwide.
Annually administered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the NCRP obtains individual-level records from state departments of corrections on prisoners entering and leaving prison custody or community supervision.
There’s nothing wrong with making sure that the right offenders go to prison for the correct reasons serving sentences that anyone would perceive as appropriate. Yes, I’m aware of people in prison for property crimes serving long sentences who probably shouldn’t be there.
But the data indicates that based on criminal history and seriousness of the crime, most offenders in prison are there justifiably.
However, it’s a myth that most stay in prison for unreasonable amounts of time. Most are out in less than two years. Most violent serve less than three. The data indicates that those serving longer sentences are there because of the seriousness of their crimes and their criminal histories