In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Truth-In-Sentencing

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Decline of Indeterminate Sentencing
  • The Rise of Determinate Sentencing
  • The Case for Limiting Judicial Discretion
  • Philosophy
  • Early Efforts to Implement Truth-in-Sentencing
  • General Evaluation
  • State Implementation after the 1994 Crime Bill

Criminology Truth-In-Sentencing
Brian J. Ostrom, Charles W. Ostrom
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 December 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 19 December 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0124


Truth-in-sentencing (TIS) describes a range of justice system policies that eliminate discretionary parole release and significantly reduce good-time accrual rates in an attempt to make sentencing both more certain and transparent. TIS policies are most often proposed as a means for ensuring that the amount of time an offender actually serves in prison is closely aligned with the sentence originally imposed by the court—the court, the victim, and the public know how long the offender will be imprisoned. These policies follow several decades of shifting sentencing philosophies and practices: Indeterminate sentencing and powerful parole boards characterized the early 1970s; paroling authorities fell out of favor with the introduction of determinate sentencing models in the late 1970s; and sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimum sentences became commonplace during the 1980s. The adoption of TIS became one of the major objectives for sentencing reform at both federal and state levels in the 1990s. Generally, the model of TIS holds that sentencing authority rests with the court and that sentences should be served in full. Only modest reductions in sentence length based on satisfactory behavior while incarcerated are acceptable. Philosophically, TIS draws largely on a “just deserts” philosophy, in which sentences are fixed proportionally on offense seriousness and, to a lesser extent, on prior criminal history. This philosophy contrasts with indeterminate models that split authority over the final sentence between the court and some other entity, such as a parole board. In those systems, the court sentences the offender to a specific term, within a range, or to an unspecified period, and a parole body determines the actual release date—often based upon rehabilitation potential.

General Overviews

The term truth-in-sentencing (TIS) is strongly associated with the US Federal Crime Bill of the mid-1990s. In 1994, the US Congress enacted legislation authorizing funding of the Violent Offender Incarceration and Truth-in-Sentencing (VOI-TIS) incentive grants (National Institute of Corrections 1995). Funding was set at $8 billion through the year 2000. Ditton and Wilson 1999 shows that states became eligible for grant funding if they could demonstrate that violent offenders would serve at least 85 percent of their imposed sentences. General Accounting Office 1998 notes that many states followed the federal lead and moved quickly to consider adopting some form of TIS reform. As the Sabol, et al. 2002 evaluation documents, roughly 60 percent of the states reporting legislative activity in 1995 indicated the Federal Crime Bill was a significant factor when considering legislation, though the actual impact of the reforms varied by state. Mauer 1996 summarizes similarities and differences in state TIS policies. The interest in TIS is based upon the attention to constraining judicial discretion and to the relationship between the uttered sentence and time served, with TIS generally meant to describe a close correspondence between the uttered sentence and the time actually served prior to prison release. Wootton 1995 and Tonry 1999 offer alternative takes on the utility of TIS policies. Greenfeld, et al. 1996 discusses how TIS policies affect prison management.

  • Ditton, Paula M., and Doris James Wilson. 1999. Truth in sentencing in state prisons. Special Report NCJ 170032. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    This bulletin provides a succinct overview of state TIS policies and a description of the amount of time prisoners spent in prison over the 1970 through 1999 period of sentencing reform.

  • General Accounting Office. 1998. Truth in sentencing: Availability of federal grants influenced laws in some states. GAO/GGD-98-42. Washington, DC: General Accounting Office.

    This GAO report examined states’ TIS laws to determine whether or not incentive grants influenced states into enacting such laws. For fiscal year 1997, the GAO review showed twenty-seven states had TIS laws that met requirements for receiving federal TIS funds.

  • Greenfeld, Lawrence A., Allen Beck, and Darrell Gilliard. 1996. Prisons: Population trends and key issues for management. Criminal Justice Review 21.1: 4–20.

    DOI: 10.1177/073401689602100103

    This article examines issues facing prison managers following the implementation of truth-in-advertising, including increasing populations, longer periods of incarceration, an increase in violent and repeat offenders, the elimination of parole release mechanisms, crowding, costs, and emerging healthcare issues, such as HIV and geriatric care. Available online by subscription.

  • Mauer, Marc. 1996. The truth about truth in sentencing. Corrections Today 58.1: 51–59.

    The goals of TIS are outlined, and the intended and unintended consequences of such policies are examined. This article reviews the variety in state TIS policies, including efforts to abolish parole and to adopt certain kinds of determinate sentencing guidelines, as well as other reforms. Available online by subscription.

  • US National Institute of Corrections. 1995. State legislative actions on truth in sentencing: A review of law and legislation in the context of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. Washington, DC: National Institute of Corrections.

    The overall purpose of the Federal Crime Bill was to ensure that violent offenders remain incarcerated for substantial periods of time. Project staff profiled TIS law and legislation for those states where the language appeared to meet or be close to meeting the criteria for grant funds under the Federal Crime Bill.

  • Sabol, William J., Katherine Rosich, Kamala Mallik-Kane, David P. Kirk, and Glenn Dubin. 2002. The influences of truth-in-sentencing reforms on changes in states’ sentencing practices and prison populations. Washington, DC: Urban Institute.

    This report provides a comprehensive overview and assessment of the Federal Crime Bill, including changes in the federal TIS grant eligibility requirements over time, the varieties of TIS implemented in the United States, and the influence of TIS reforms on changes in prison population.

  • Tonry, Michael. 1999. Parochialism in US sentencing policy. Crime & Delinquency 45:48–65.

    DOI: 10.1177/0011128799045001003

    The author provides a summary of political and social factors driving adoption of TIS laws in the United States and observes that in the conservative American political climate of the 1990s, few elected politicians were willing to risk being called “soft on crime.” Once established, TIS provisions were hard to modify.

  • Wootton, James. 1995. Truth in sentencing: Why states should make violent criminals do their time. Dayton Law Review 20.2: 779–792.

    This article makes a plea to develop TIS policies that ensure violent offenders serve longer and more certain sentences in prison. The author asserts recidivism is rampant among violent offenders, and that high, costly recidivism among this group justifies increased expenditures on prisons and the elimination of early parole release. Available online by subscription.

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