Truth in Sentencing Laws


Truth in sentencing laws demand that convicted criminals serve a substantial proportion of their prison sentence. Before the laws were enacted, convicted criminals rarely served their entire prison sentence, but instead were released early for good behavior or due to overcrowding. The laws are a way to get tough on crime.


  • Before truth in sentencing laws, parole boards had significant freedom in releasing prisoners before the completion of their sentence. Prison release was contingent on probationary periods and based on severity of the crime and good-behavior reviews. Truth in sentencing laws require that prisoners serve at least 85 percent of their term regardless of their behavior in prison. The laws took power away from parole boards and placed it with the sentencing judge.


  • In 1984, Washington became the first state to pass truth in sentencing legislation. In 1994, in an effort to get tough on crime and normalize prison sentences across the states, the U.S. Congress authorized additional funding for state prison systems where truth in sentencing laws were in place, where prisoners were mandated to serve at least 85 percent of their term, regardless of their behavior in prison. By 1998, 27 states and the District of Columbia were complying with the federal guidelines. By 1999, 14 states had abolished parole boards altogether.


  • Truth in sentencing laws keep more criminals in prison longer. Between 1990 and 1997, the population of state prisons increased from under 700,000 inmates to more than 1.1 million inmates. This increase in the prison population comes with a higher price. In Wisconsin, where truth in sentencing laws were enacted in 1999, the annual budget for the state prison system increased from $700 million in 1999 to $1.2 billion in 2009. To make up for budget shortfalls, some state legislators have reconsidered a parole program.

Victims' Rights

  • Proponents of truth in sentencing measures argue that the public and the victims of crime have a right to know exactly what amount of prison time has been imposed, that survivors of violent crime have a right to know how long the criminal will be in jail and that paroling a criminal after only a fraction of his sentence undermines the extent of the victim's trauma. Victims' rights groups also argue for truth in sentencing laws by pointing to criminals that have committed violent offenses while on parole.

Prison Life

  • Some wardens have found that truth in sentencing laws have a negative effect on inmate behavior. Before truth in sentencing laws, inmates could reduce their prison sentence by behaving well and participating in education or counseling. The laws have removed that incentive. In addition, the increased numbers of inmates has shifted funding from education and counseling to simply providing beds and food. Critics of truth in sentencing laws argue that, by shifting the focus from rehabilitation to punishment, the policy may increase recidivism.


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