Crime Statistics: No Prison Sentences for Most Felony Convictions

January 25, 2010

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Gentlereaders: A student was asking about incarceration in the United States. He is aware that the United States is the world’s leader in rates of incarceration per a number of sources. According to the New York Times:

“The United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But it has almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners.”

“Indeed, the United States leads the world in producing prisoners…. Americans are locked up for crimes — from writing bad checks to using drugs — that would rarely produce prison sentences in other countries. And in particular they are kept incarcerated far longer than prisoners in other nations.”

“Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized nations say they are mystified and appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences.”

See for the full article.

Most Crimes End in Incarceration?

Based on the above, the student summarized that most crime, certainly most felonies result in long sentences to state prisons. But that’s not the case.

Most crimes are not reported and most reported crimes do not end in arrest. These are solid facts as reported by US Department of Justice research.

In many urban jurisdictions, significant percentages of those charged with crimes are not prosecuted. Here the research is not nearly as strong but newspaper accounts seem to put the figure between 20-40 percent.

The Philadelphia Inquirer recently stated that nearly two-thirds of violent crimes are not prosecuted. See

New research (below) indicates that 94 percent of those charged with felonies plead guilty, and the only way to get the offender to plead guilty is to drop some or most of the crimes the defendant is originally charged with.

Finally, the new research states that 41 percent of felony convictions end up in state prison.

The New York Times article cites criminologists being “appalled by the number and length of American prison sentences” so we do not use the small number of months given for jail sentences in our analysis.

Results? Obviously most crimes committed in the United States do not result in a prison sentence.

More to the point, the great majority of defendants with felony convictions do not end up in state prisons.

How the United States leads the world as to incarceration when considering the above is a question that we cannot answer.

The United States probably does overuse incarceration; we believe that tens of thousands of inmates that fit categories for low-risk recidivism (female offenders, older inmates) could probably be released with services to assist their reintegration. This would save states tens of millions of dollars while having acceptable rates of reoffending.

But we are also aware that incarceration in state prisons is rare when considering the numbers of: crimes committed; arrests; charges; prosecutions and ultimately convictions for felonies.

If incarcerations to prison are statistically rare events (based on the preceding numbers) and we do it more than any other country in the world, then we have a paradox; there is no easy explanation.

If the United States lead the world in the number of crimes reported then that would offer some justification, but we note that there are many countries that have higher rates of crime than the United States, see

We look forward to your opinions.

Felony Sentences in State Courts, 2006, Department of Justice, December, 2009

Remarks, observations and pure guesses from us are identified in italics. Data from the report are noted below our remarks:

Most felony convictions do not end up in prison.

Statistic: In 2006 an estimated 69% of all persons convicted of a felony in state courts were sentenced to a period of confinement–41% to state prison and 28% to local jails.

Charges are reduced for most defendants to induce guilty pleas. It’s pure observation on our part but our belief that most offenders are charged with multiple but related crimes, thus a large number of charges are dropped to induce plea bargaining.

Statistic: Most (94%) felony offenders sentenced in 2006 pleaded guilty.

A significant number of felony defendants are not incarcerated.

Statistic: Among persons sentenced for a felony in state courts nationwide in 2006, an estimated 27% received a probation sentence with no jail or prison time.

Life sentences are very rare.

Statistic: Life sentences accounted for less than 1% (0.3%) of the 1.1 million felony sentences in state courts during 2006.

Federal prison sentences are longer than state incarcerations.

Statistic: The average felony sentence to incarceration (prison or jail) in state courts was about 3 years in 2006, compared to almost 5 years and 6 months in federal courts

A small percentage of offenders were sentenced for three or more felonies. It’s pure observation on our part but our belief that most offenders are charged with multiple crimes, thus a large number of charges are dropped to induce plea bargaining.

Statistic: About 3 out of 4 felons sentenced in 2006 (77%) were sentenced for a single offense. An estimated 15% were sentenced for two felony offenses, and 7% were sentenced for three or more felonies.

Crime is a young man’s endeavor.

Statistic: In 2006 persons in their twenties accounted for 40% of convicted felons, which was more than double their percentage of the U.S. adult population (18%)

Felony charges involve long waits for dispositions.

Statistics: Among felons sentenced in state courts durin2006, an estimated 4% were sentenced within 1 month following their arrest, 14% were sentence within 3 months of their arrest, 33% were sentenced within 6 months of their arrest, and 67% were sentenced within 12 months of their arrest.

The median time from arrest to sentencing for all felony convictions was 265 days. The median days from arrest to sentencing was longest for murder (505 days) and sexual assault (348 days) convictions.


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