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Prisons Study Finds Many Murderers Serving Less Than 7 Years

April 01, 1986|DON IRWIN | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Half the murderers discharged from state prisons in 1983 had served less than seven years, and 768 convicts originally sentenced to life terms were released from 21 state prison systems, 20% of them after serving three years or less, according to study results issued Monday by the Justice Department.

The report of the department's Bureau of Justice Statistics was based on data covering 135,000 prison releases and 144,000 admissions in 30 states, including California. It said that the study analyzed about 60% of the admissions and discharges at state prisons in 1983, the first year surveyed under a new reporting program.

The data showed wide differences between states in the time actually served as compared with the original sentences, but the report cautioned that "differences in sentencing practices make it difficult to compare sentence lengths."

Two Sentencing Systems

The principal difference lies in the amount of discretion states allow sentencing judges to use. Under the "determinate sentencing" procedure used in California and five other states covered by the report, judges set specific terms within a range allowed by state law, and inmates must serve the full term less any "good time" their conduct in prison may earn them. In "indeterminate sentencing" states, judges set maximum and minimum sentences, but state parole boards release a majority of prisoners well before the maximum-time date.

The report, which lumped time served in local jails before commitment to prison with the figures on prison terms, showed longer sentences in indeterminate-sentencing states, but slightly longer terms actually served in most determinate-sentencing states.

It said that 36 months was the median--or statistical midpoint--of the length of time to which prisoners in all categories were sentenced on admission to prison in 1983, and 60 months was the median sentence for those convicted of violent crimes.

Most Common Terms

Median sentences in determinate-sentencing states were 36 months for all crimes, 48 months for violent crimes, 24 months for property offenses and 36 months for drug offenses. In indeterminate-sentencing states, the medians were 60 months for all crimes, 120 months for violent offenses and 48 months for both property and drug offenses.

The median terms served for all offenses was 19 months, with medians of 30 months for violent offenses, 15 months for property offenses and 15 months in drug cases.

In California, the study found, the median time served for all offenses was 22 months, 30 months was the median for violent offenses, and medians were 17 months for property offenses and 22 months for drug offenses.

California showed 27,230 admissions to prisons during the year, more than any other state surveyed. The runner-up was Texas, with 22,859 admissions.

The report said that the average prisoner sentenced to life won release after nine years in prison. Three fourths of such offenders released in 1983 had been convicted of murder, 10.7% of them were convicted of rape or other sexual assault and 8% of robbery.

Comparisons by Race

The study found no difference between races in sentences for murder, but it said that when all offenses were lumped together, blacks received median and average sentences 12 months longer than did whites, although the pattern was not consistent from state to state.

Large state prison systems not covered by the study included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Florida and Indiana.

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