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The 85% solution.


Fed up with crime, states are taking aim at sentencing laws to ensure that convicts will spend at least 85 percent of their sentence behind bars. Often dubbed as "truth in sentencing," the laws are aimed at keeping dangerous offenders in prison longer.

A new law in Florida grew out of a petition drive last year that would have added the 85-percent-of-sentence minimum to the state's constitution. Although the measure didn't make the ballot because of technical errors, legislators liked the idea. It became law this session along with separate bills that revised the state's sentencing guidelines and set a mandatory-minimum sentence for repeat, violent offenders.


But there is a price. The sentencing package is expected to cost Florida more than $2 billion over the next five years and double the prison population, currently at about 60,000 inmates.

Florida's corrections budget already is feeling the strain of increased operations costs. FY 1996 appropriations are up a whopping 50 percent over FY 1995 expenditures, not counting capital outlays that will total nearly $100 million this fiscal year, according to legislative fiscal analysts. Overall growth in Florida's FY '96 general fund is expected to be a modest 3.2 percent - stark contrast to the massive growth in corrections spending.

In Montana, "dangerous" criminals are required to spend 85 percent of their sentences in prison. Montana lawmakers also are reviewing "good time" sentence credits and may call for eliminating them by 1997.

Last year, the California Legislature approved limits on work credits to ensure that people imprisoned for violent felonies serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Legislative analysts estimate that cumulative costs of the longer terms will reach $10 million.

Parole is also in the crosshairs. In a special session late last year, Virginia lawmakers abolished parole and good conduct allowances for anyone convicted of a felony. Despite provisions to allow for geriatric release of some prisoners and to develop local alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent felons, the state is expected to double its prison population by the year 2000 and require $2 billion for more prison space.

Arizona, in a complete rewrite of the state's criminal code, eliminated parole and other forms of early release, requiring that inmates serve 85 percent of sentences. "Good behavior" credits were kept, but limited to 15 percent of sentences.

The criminal code revision was designed to have low or no impact on prison population growth, according to Senator Patricia Noland, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. The re-engineered criminal code set presumptive sentences for many crimes at about the amount of time actually being served, lengthened time served for certain serious or violent crimes, eliminated some mandatory minimum drag sentences and decreased penalties for some nonviolent offenders.

"Truth in sentencing gave Arizona an honest approach to criminal sentencing and provided accountability for keeping dangerous offenders in prison longer," Noland says.


Some states may be able to offset the costs of longer time served with incentive grants for prison construction from the federal Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. To be eligible, states must have a comprehensive plan to increase incarceration of violent offenders. Funds will be available to states according to a formula of reported numbers of violent crimes. Money also will be distributed to states moving to adopt some form of "truth in sentencing," either by increasing the percentage of time violent offenders serve or meeting an 85-percent-of-sentence standard.

Violent offenders released from state prisons in 1992 served an average 48 percent of sentence, according to a Justice Department report released earlier this year, and many early analyses of the 1994 federal Crime Bill said few states would meet the "truth" criteria. By midyear, however, Marlene Beckman, special counsel to the Office of Justice Programs which will administer the funds, said that a flurry of activity in states on 85-percent-of sentence legislation suggests many more states will be in line for grants. Congress is currently considering more stringent criteria for states than was laid out in the 1994 legislation, Beckman said, so final grant rules and announcements are still pending at OJP.


Recent federal legislation has focused attention not only on the appropriate role of the federal government in state crime policy, but also on the costs of those policies - do they, in fact, buy crime control? Keeping more offenders in prison longer does not necessarily have a big payoff in crime reduction, says Marc Mauer, of The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.,-based criminal justice reform organization. An analysis of provisions of the 1994 federal crime legislation prepared for The Sentencing Project estimates that states may have to spend $3 to $5 for every one federal dollar received under truth in sentencing. That's money well spent according to a Heritage Foundation paper by James Wootton, president of Safe Streets Alliance. He cites a Justice Department program in Oxnard, Calif., that put the city's 30 most active serious habitual offenders behind bars in 1987. Violent crimes dropped by 38 percent, more than double the drop in any other California city.


Inmates will serve at least 85 percent of their sentences under the laws of Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee and Virginia.

Donna Hunzeker is NCSL's criminal justice expert in Denver.
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Title Annotation:sentencing laws
Author:Hunzeker, Donna
Publication:State Legislatures
Date:Sep 1, 1995
Previous Article:When home's not sweet.
Next Article:Workers' comp on the mend.

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