Felony Sentences Increase During Years of Declining Crime. Why?

Crime in America

In 2006 (latest numbers available) state courts sentenced (after finding a defendant guilty) an estimated 1,132,290 people for a felony conviction. That total represents a 37 percent increase from the number of felony offenders sentenced in 1990. See http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/fssc06st.pdf

This is somewhat remarkable considering that there has been an almost continuous decrease in crime since 1990. Reported violent crime (in contrast to all crimes-most crimes are not reported) went up three years out of the last twenty (in 1991, 2005 and 2006).

So what’s going on? If crime has been steadily declining since 1990, why was there a 37 percent increase in 2006 as to the number of felony offenders sentenced since 1990?

There is a considerable difference in the numbers of crime reported to the police and the much higher numbers offered by the National Crime Survey which counts all crime (through surveys). See http://crimeinamerica.net/crime-rates-united-states/.

Was there an increase in crimes reported? The answer is no. The Department of Justice states that there was stability in crimes reported from 2000 to 2009.

So the bottom line is that we have a considerable increase in the number of people sentenced for felonies during a time of decreasing crime and no increase in crimes reported to law enforcement.

The criminal justice system does not invent the victims who report the crimes that result in convictions, thus all this activity reflects what’s happening in our communities.

To us, the only possible explanation is that the system reacts to less reported crime by digging deeper into the ranks of people who continue to commit crime and prosecute and incarcerate more of them which would partially explain the vast increase in prison populations since 1990.

The criminal justice system has a unique capacity to adjust itself to available resources. How many people are arrested, held in jail before trial, prosecuted, plea-bargained and incarcerated depends on resources. If you build a new prison and the system suddenly has more capacity, it gets filled in record time.   If there’s overcrowding in the local jail, fewer are held before trial. None of this is mandated; it just happens. The system automatically adjusts itself.

So less crime does not necessarily mean fewer prosecutions and incarcerations; it may mean that those ignored in previous years via plea bargaining (agreeing to a guilty charge for less serious crimes—94 percent of all prosecutions) get more attention when system capacities increase.

Whether this is a public service or a system that changes with the fiscal tides is unclear to us but we are aware that prison beds are currently decreasing for the first time in many years due to massive budget cuts. Our guess is that the data for future (or current) years will show a decrease in prosecutions.

This is nothing more than our opinion. We would appreciate yours.



  1. The reason, in my opinion is because they are giving people like myself, a felony when in fact the crime warrents a misdemeanor. I had a shoplifting charge that the items taken were under 200.00. It was my first charge, and none since. I was suffering emotionally at the time and could have provided medical documentation possibly supporting my poor judgement. None the less they charged me with a class 4 felony! They plea bargained me down to a class 6 felony saying it would be a misdemeanor after a year of probation. It has been 3 years now and I still have a felony record and haven’t been able to find a job since. I was a single mom at the time also. I live in Arizona. Its just proof our system is broken and the courts do as they please when a person cannot afford proper defense.

    • Hi Shiloh: This response is to you and Terry; both of you are making similar observations. Thanks for writing.
      It’s obvious that the society holds too many people accountable for too long. There is research indicating that ex-felons, after a certain amount of time without new charges, are no more likely to re-offend than the average person.
      There are a lot of people who are years beyond their crime and drug use who are still being help responsible for their actions. That does society little good.
      The flip side of the issue is that there are plenty of people who go on to great careers despite their criminal records. They work with mentors and religious leaders for referrals and get their records expunged (where possible). They are persistent and do not take “no” for an answer. It takes a lot to overcome the stigma but people do it every day.
      We appreciate your comments.
      Best, Adam.