Another problem is that criminals generally serve only a fraction of their sentences, even as sentences themselves are often too short.
Because of parole and early release programs, sentences handed down by state courts do not indicate time actually served.
Data collected from the states by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that for violent crimes, the average time served is three years and seven months (43 months) or 48 percent of the original sentence (89 months). For murder, the average is only five years and 11 months (71 months) or 48 percent of the original sentence (149 months); for robbery, three years and eight months (44 months) or 46 percent of the original sentence (95 months); and for rape, five years and five months (65 months) or 56 percent of the original sentence (117 months).
These short prison terms for violent repeat offenders do more than trigger a sense of injustice among victims. They also mean more crime.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that approximately 28 percent of all male convicts, and 46 percent of recidivist convicts, still would have been in prison for their first crimes at the time of their admission to prison for a second crime if, instead of being paroled, they had been given sentences in the maximum range for their original convictions. These percentages would be substantially higher for those who committed another crime within their original sentence than they would be for those apprehended, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned during that time.
In another study the BJS estimated that 69 percent of parolees 17 to 22 years old were re-arrested within six years of their release and that about 29 percent of new arrest charges occurred before these parolees original sentences would have ended.
According to the bipartisan Council on Crime in America, "45 percent of state prisoners were persons, who, at the very time they committed their latest crimes, were on probabtion or parole. While free in the community, they committed at least 218,000 violent crimes, including 13,200 murders and11,600 rapes (over half of the rapes against children)."
Federal Courts Still Gutting Truth in Sentencing Laws
Recognizing the tendency of early-release prisoners to commit crimes, more and more states are adopting "truth in sentencing" laws to keep criminals incarcerated for as much of the full sentence as possible. Under the most common formulation, a criminal convicted of a violent crime is required to serve at least 85 percent of the full sentence. This is perhaps the most effective judicial remedy for violent crime devised so far, because it eliminates probation and parole for violent criminals.
Unfortunately, liberal jurists, apparently more concerned with protecting the rights of prisoners than with protecting the rights of law-abiding citizens victimized by violent crime, are trying to gut these laws. This is particularly true of federal judges who, to relieve prison overcrowding, often order that even violent criminals be released back to the streets. Few states and localities can avoid this federal intervention: Some 39 states and 300 of the nations largest jails operate under some form of federal court direction.
Ostensibly to eliminate "overcrowding," tens of thousands of prisoners have been released onto the streets. But "overcrowding" has never been defined, so each judge is free to determine it on a subjective basis. Far from the popular image of groups of prisoners crammed into single cells, it has come to mean, as arbitrarily defined by several judges, simply more than one prisoner to a cell. Some federal judges even refuse to allow convicted felons to be sent to prison, citing "overcrowding," and just release them even violent criminals and repeat offenders. These released felons have been responsible for tens of thousands of additional violent crimes. For example:
- In Florida, 20,350 criminals were released to comply with a statewide population cap imposed by a federal court.
- In Cook County, Illinois, approximately 30,000 prisoners released each year from pre-trial detention under a prison population cap commit an additional 7,500 violent crimes annually.
- In Texas, a federal judge imposed a cap on the prison population that forced the state parole board to increase early prisoner releases by over 400 percent. There were more convicted violent felons on parole than behind bars.
- In Georgia the state parole board, operating under overcrowding restrictions imposed by the federal court, granted early release to 36,000 violent felons and sex offenders (including 2,772 multiple sex offenders) who had served an average of 36 percent of their sentences.
Only Congress can restrain the excesses of a lenient federal judiciary. It should do so as soon as possible.