BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics

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Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS)
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Crime and Justice in the United States
and in England and Wales, 1981-96

Incarceration sentence length

Murderers:  average incarceration sentence Rapists: :  average incarceration sentence
Robbers:  average incarceration sentence Assaulters:  average incarceration sentence
Burlgars:  average incarceration sentence Motor vehicle theft:  average incarceration sentence

To the chart data

Notes on figures 49-54: All figures pertain to "maximum" sentence length imposed. In England, sentence lengths were based on sentences imposed on released offenders by juvenile and adult courts nationwide. In the United States, adult sentence lengths were based on sentences imposed in the year by State and Federal courts nationwide, but juvenile sentence lengths were not based on sentences imposed by juvenile courts. Unlike juvenile courts in England, those in the United States generally do not impose sentences of a specified length; instead, sentences are of an indeterminate length. Nevertheless a way was devised to specify juvenile sentence lengths in the United States. U.S. juvenile sentence lengths were estimated as the sum of length of time in confinement plus length of time in aftercare. Assuming that length of time in aftercare (a measure that is largely unavailable in the United States) equals length of time in confinement (a measure that is somewhat available), doubling the confinement length provides an estimate of juvenile sentence length (see the methodology section for the justification for this assumption). In the United States, juvenile sentence lengths were therefore derived from available multi-state data on time served by juveniles before release from incarceration. Incarceration is defined in Notes on figures 31-36. More details on the conviction and sentencing data for the graphics is given in Notes on figures 19-24. In both countries, sentence lengths for murder included life sentences. Crime definitions for the graphics are given in Notes on figures 5-10.

In the United States, incarceration sentence lengths are either determinate or indeterminate. In imposing an indeterminate sentence, the judge sets the maximum length of time the offender can be confined before being released. A parole board decides when an adult offender with an indeterminate sentence is released; a juvenile court judge or an authorized State agency decides the release date for a juvenile offender with an indeterminate sentence. In most States, sentences imposed in adult courts and juvenile courts are indeterminate. Before 1987, sentences imposed in Federal courts were also indeterminate.

An adult sentence of "10 to 20 years" is an example of an indeterminate sentence. What makes the sentence indeterminate is the fact that, at the time of sentencing, the offender cannot know how long he or she will serve before being released because the offender cannot know when the parole board will grant release. All that is known is a specified time range.

By contrast, a determinate sentence has no time range: it is a single maximum period of time, such as "20 years." The length of time that the offender with a determinate sentence will serve is whatever maximum term was imposed, less whatever number of days or months was deducted from the sentence for good behavior or special achievements.

Before 1992 the English sentencing system was largely indeterminate. Except for sentences under 10½ months, all sentences were indeterminate. That changed in 1992, when a more determinate sentencing system was adopted. Today, as in 1992, the only sentences that are indeterminate are those that are at least 4 years long.

In the United States the maximum juvenile sentence is typically "until age 18" or "until age 21." In England, before 1992 the maximum was 1 year. In 1992 the maximum was set at 1 year for juveniles sentenced in the juvenile court and 2 years for those sentenced as juveniles in the Crown Court.

Unlike the United States, England does not have the death penalty. Both countries have life sentences, but there is a difference. In the United States, "life without the possibility of parole" and "life with the possibility of parole" are sentencing options available in most States. By contrast, life with the possibility of parole is the only type of life sentence available in English courts.

Which courts -- those in the United States or those in England -- impose longer incarceration sentences?

  • Incarceration sentences are longer in the United States than in England (including Wales).

    According to latest figures (1994 in the United States, 1995 in England) incarceration sentences, on average, were --

    • 3 years longer for murder in the United States than in England (266 months in the United States versus 230 in England) (figure 49)
    • nearly 4 years longer for rape in the United States than in England (123 months in the United States versus 77 in England) (figure 50)
    • 4 years longer for robbery in the United States than in England (89 months in the United States versus 40 in England) (figure 51)
    • nearly 3 years longer for assault in the United States than in England (48 months in the United States versus 14 in England) (figure 52)
    • over 2 years longer for burglary in the United States than in England (43 months in the United States versus 15 in England) (figure 53)
    • over 1 year longer for motor vehicle theft in the United States than in England (24 months in the United States versus about 9 in England) (figure 54).

    Are sentences getting longer in both countries?

  • Of the six crimes investigated, sentence lengths are getting longer for only one crime in the United States: murder. In England, sentences are getting longer for three crimes: murder, rape, and robbery.

    From 1981 to the latest year of sentencing data (1994 in the United States, 1995 in England) --

    • U.S. incarceration sentences lengthened by 11 months for murder (average of 255 months in 1981 rising to 266 in 1994); English sentences lengthened by 6 years (155 months in 1981 rising to 230 in 1995) (figure 49)
    • U.S. incarceration sentence lengths for rape showed no clear trend, while English rape sentences lengthened by 3 years (average of 40 months in 1981 rising to 77 months in 1994) (figure 50)
    • U.S. incarceration sentence lengths for robbery showed no clear trend, while English robbery sentences lengthened by 1 year (average of 27 months in 1981 rising to 40 months in 1994) (figure 51)
    • Both U.S. and English incarceration sentence lengths for assault showed no clear trend (figure 52)
    • Both U.S. and English incarceration sentence lengths for burglary showed no clear trend (figure 53)
    • Both U.S. and English incarceration sentence lengths for motor vehicle theft showed no clear trend (figure 54).
    Chart data - in spreadsheets
    Figure 49 Figure 50 Figure 51
    Murder Rape Robbery

    Year
    United
    States

    England
    United
    States

    England
    United
    States

    England
    1981 254.6 154.5 123.2 40.1 81.9 26.7
    1982
    1983 249.2 149.9 92.1 41.6 73.3 24.3
    1984
    1985
    1986 239.5 125.2 110.8
    1987 144.7 52.0 34.1
    1988 252.5 140.9 90.4
    1989
    1990 245.2 121.9 85.5
    1991 216.6 58.0 40.9
    1992 252.3 124.0 87.6
    1993 228.0 70.2 41.4
    1994 266.4 123.0 88.8
    1995 229.9 77.0 40.3
    Figure 52 Figure 53 Figure 54
    Assault Burglary Motor vehicle theft

    Year
    United
    States

    England
    United
    States

    England
    United
    States

    England
    1981 42.5 10.8 36.6 10.9 26.2 8.0
    1982
    1983 44.4 10.0 38.3 11.3 23.5 8.3
    1984
    1985
    1986 58.8 47.8 26.8
    1987 14.7 15.1 9.1
    1988 53.3 48.0 24.6
    1989
    1990 47.4 51.5 29.3
    1991 17.8 17.2 6.6
    1992 49.5 46.9 27.9
    1993 15.9 15.5 7.2
    1994 47.8 43.1 23.5
    1995 13.7 14.9 8.6


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