Crime Statistics: No Prison Sentences for Most Felony Convictions


The original article was created in 2010, it was updated in 2016.

We made some minor adjustments but after review, we believe that it remains accurate and useful.

However, we offered an updated post in 2014 on the same topic at, we suggest that you include it in your analysis.

My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon

Original Article

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 20-30 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 was 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;” we do not use the small number of months given for jail sentences in our analysis.

Answering the Reader’s Question

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 as to why.

If the United States leads 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

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

 Remarks from us are identified in italics. Data from the report are noted below:

Most felony convictions do not end up in prison.

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 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.

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

A significant number of felony defendants are not incarcerated

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.

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

Time served-Number of crimes

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 our belief that most offenders are charged with multiple crimes, thus a large number of charges are dropped to induce plea bargaining.

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.

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.

Among felons sentenced in state courts during 2006, an estimated 4% were sentenced within one month following their arrest, 14% were sentenced 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.


Contact us at For media on deadline, contact



  1. Anonymous says:

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

    This actually can be answered easily. The punishments that exist for many crimes are unjustified i.e. mandatory minimums for relatively small amounts of drugs.

    • Thanks for this post. I was looking to add some data to a post I wrote related to watching “The 13th” on Netflix, a film on over-incarceration. I was critical of it, and for now I’m keeping this link on this section:

      “And obviously, being poor and not having a good lawyer plays a significant part in jail time, too, but I would argue that’s a “small bias” compared to the larger factor of criminal behavior. 27% of persons convicted of a felony will serve no jail time. Few liberals talk about the large rap sheets people often have before doing actual jail time. Few conservatives talk about the lack of opportunities that causes someone to repeat those behaviors.”

      But I wondered how you say “most” people do NOT do jail time for felonies, while the sources you mention prove they do. You wrote, “A great majority of defendants with felony convictions do not end up in state prisons” and “Most felony convictions do not end up in prison.” However, the highlighted statistics immediately after that DO show a majority of persons are doing jail time for felonies. RE: “69% of all persons convicted of a felony in state courts were sentenced to a period of confinement” and “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.” Is there something I’m missing?

      READ MORE: “The 13th” and its Glaring Omission: Actual Crime that Mirrors Demographics: While Ava DuVarney’s movie asks important questions on incarceration, it ignores reasons why we lock people up a majority of people in the first place (hint: It’s not drugs)

  2. The only true crime is that in America we hand out felonies like candy.

    • Hi Ryan: Thanks for your comment. But if most crime is not reported and if most reported crime is not solved and if a hefty portion of solved crimes are not prosecuted and if 90 percent of prosecutions are plea-bargained and most of those do not get prison time, how do we hand out felonies like candy?
      Best, Adam.

  3. Although we live in a society that glorifies crime (in movies, music on television, etc.), once someone has committed a crime they are treated as a pariah. Jobs, places to live and chances to contribute to society become severely limited. Yes there are a number of programs offered by correctional facilities to reintegrate you back into the community from jail, but they do nothing to change the nature of how people perceive a felon. States have been in the business of creating and charging defemdants with laws they have no intention of prosecuting them for( some of these charges are much more serious sounding than the real offense) simply to force the defendant to “plea out.” Take Florida for instance, if you enter into a building with the intention of commiting a felony (say writing a bad check over $300) they charge you with burglary. I don’t care what anyone says if I see burglary on a prospective employes application it’s going to the bottom of the pile. We really need to take the business out of incarceration (a service oriented function of society) and put production of usefull things back into the minds of US citizen.

    • 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.

  4. Kent George says:

    I believe that very few crimes warrant more than six months in jail/prison. Anyone who has been in a hospital for several months knows how long that can be.

    Also, prison is supposed to be for loss of freedom for a specified time. The dangers an inmate suffers from other inmates is above the intention of incarceration. The state must protect inmates from dangerous inmates.

    • Hi. Thanks for your comments. Sorry for the late reply. I would like you to read and see if it alters your opinion.
      Thanks, Adam.

      • Maria Gorman says:

        My son has a conviction for a burglary one of course that he’s covering up for a girlfriend that did the actual crime beside that fact that doesn’t matter anymore my question is he has absolutely no criminal record except for a disorderly conduct they are offering him one to 20 years in prison in Florida it takes a point system to put somebody in prison so how is it that they are offering him prison time with absolutely or very little criminal record can you explain that to me and he has a paid attorney also

        • because he is male..the better option would be to bring his girlfriend in front ( who actually committed the crime).. The court would have given her 1-2 yr of probation or community service…The justice system in US is designed to punish male only..females are excluded

%d bloggers like this: