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What is Truth in Sentencing?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Truth in sentencing is a concept put forward by some criminal justice advocates who argue that people should serve a substantial portion of the sentence handed down by a judge, instead of being released early on parole. Historically, prison systems have released prisoners early on probation when they behave well and are deemed to be less of a threat to society as a result. Someone sentenced to nine years in prison, therefore, might only serve six. Under truth in sentencing, that same person would be required to serve at least 85% of the nine year sentence.

There are a number of arguments to support this policy, and several governments have responded by passing truth in sentencing laws. It is believed to act as a deterrent to crime because criminals understand that if they are convicted, they will serve most of the resulting sentence in prison. In addition, these laws are also promoted as a way to protect the rights of victims and the general public; victims of violent crimes, for example, can be assured that the perpetrator will serve most of the sentence.

Arguments against such laws include the fact that they contribute to higher prison costs and overcrowding, and that they can remove the incentive for good behavior in prisons, which can lead to behavioral problems. When people are not being released early for good behavior, they may not be inclined to behave well, especially in a crowded prison.

Typically, proposals for truth in sentencing laws are also linked with other sentencing guidelines including mandatory minimum sentences. The first strip parole boards of their powers, while sentencing guidelines in turn act to limit the discretion of judges. When a judge passes sentence in a region with sentencing guidelines, she or he cannot waive or alter the sentence, even if this is believed to be in the interests of the guilty party or the public.

Reform of the criminal justice and penal systems is a complex issue, and it is often in flux in response to changing social attitudes about the justice system and the prison system. Regional laws can also be quite variable, depending on the demographic makeup of their populations. Some regions have liberal populations that would prefer to focus on rehabilitation, for example, while others have conservative populations that would prefer to see criminals serving traditional prison sentences.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Sunny27 — On Aug 04, 2011

@SurfNTurf - I agree, but I also think that these mandatory sentencing guidelines came about because the public was really getting ticked off with many lenient judges giving sentences to convicted criminals that really made a joke of the justice system. These guidelines might not be perfect in all cases, but I understand why we have them.

By surfNturf — On Aug 04, 2011

@GreenWeaver -I understand what you are saying, but there is another side of the coin. These types of guidelines do not allow the judge any leeway when sentencing a defendant. A young teenager that hung around with the wrong crowd and happened to have a gun with him while they were caught stealing a car would get an automatic ten years in prison.

There is no exception. This is very different than a person committing a mugging or home invasion with the threat of using the gun. The latter are violent crimes and should have not had the same penalties as stealing a car.

I also think that first time offenders should have a chance to rehabilitate themselves because many teenagers and young adults make stupid mistakes and we should consider giving them another chance.

Forcing an 18 year old to serve ten years in prison marks that person for the rest of their lives and usually this forces them to become career criminals because they see no other option because this is all that they know.

By GreenWeaver — On Aug 03, 2011

I live in the state of Florida and I want to say that we have very strict laws pertaining to the use of a gun in commission of a crime. For example, is someone uses a gun to commit a criminal offense they get an automatic sentence of ten years in prison even if this was their first offense.

If the person went further and actually fired the gun during a commission of a crime the mandatory sentence is twenty years. If the person actually ends up injuring someone or even killing a person while committing a crime the mandatory sentence is twenty-five years to life in prison.

This is what is referred to by law enforcement as 10-20- Life guidelines. These guidelines were developed in efforts to lower the crime rate by having people think twice about committing crimes with a gun because usually when a gun is involved in a crime the violence escalates and often resulting in a senseless tragedy. I am glad we have these guidelines.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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