Time Actually Served in Prison

“Everybody knows” that the reason that incarceration rates are so high in the United States is that we sentence people to far longer terms than their crimes warrant. As the old saying goes, it’s not what we don’t know that gets us in trouble; it’s what we know for a fact that just isn’t so.

On the left is a reasonable facsimile of Figure 1 from a new Bureau of Justice Statistics Report, Time Served in State Prison, 2018. It shows the median time actually served by state prisoners released in 2018, by their most serious offense. The ones serving long sentences are murderers and rapists, exactly the criminals whom persons of sense believe should be put away for a long time.

For all other crimes, the median time served is less than two and half years. For property offenses, it’s just a shade over a year. For drug possession, it’s less than a year. Even drug trafficking is only 1.4 years.

There are, of course, anecdotal examples of excessive sentences. But those are rare, and corrective measures for aberrations from the norm need to be addressed to the reasons why the norm was departed from.

Another reason that many people have a wrong impression is that federal cases get much more attention than their fraction of the prisoner population warrants. Federal sentencing does tend to be more severe, but the vast majority of American prisoners are held in state prisons or county jails.

As the graph above illustrates, the system generally gets it about right. As another pearl of traditional wisdom tells us, if it isn’t broken, don’t “fix” it. The overall level of sentencing for state crimes is not too severe. If anything, it is too lenient.