The rate at which federal offenders are being sentenced to prison time has increased by 10 percentage points in the past 10 years -- from 75.4 percent to 85.3 percent since fiscal year 1997 -- while the use of alternative sentences, such as probation and probation with confinement, has decreased over the same period.
White, older citizens convicted of fraud, larceny or other white-collar crimes have a higher likelihood than other offenders of getting an alternative sentence, but they still are sentenced primarily to prison time, according to a new report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.
In 1984, more than 30 percent of offenders were sentenced to probation without any term of confinement, said sentencing practitioner Margaret Love of the Law Office of Margaret Love in Washington, D.C., noting an earlier commission report. But the just-released commission report states that 7.1 percent of federal offenders received probation only in 2007 -- a huge decline.
"Somebody is not getting the message," said Love. "The states are far ahead of the federal government. They have to live with the budgetary impact and the impact on the community. They really want to keep people out of prison."
The decline in the use of alternative sentences, according to the commission report, is largely due to noncitizen offenders who must be confined while awaiting deportation.
In fiscal year 2007, more than one-third (37.4 percent) of offenders were noncitizens, the overwhelming majority of whom were illegal aliens.
"The citizen/noncitizen issue is no small issue in terms of sentencing outcome," said Ryan King of the Sentencing Project. "If the offender is here illegally, the court is not going to release him."
The commission examined four sentencing tools: imprisonment and three alternatives: probation only, probation with confinement and prison with community confinement.
Despite the availability of sentencing alternatives for nearly 25 percent of all federal offenders, federal courts most often impose prison time across the range of offenses.
Prison sentences accounted for 81.1 percent of sentences imposed on citizens in fiscal year 2007. The remaining sentences are probation (8.4 percent), probation with confinement (5.8 percent) and prison split with community confinement (4.7 percent). For citizens, the average prison sentence is 76 months. The average prison sentence for offenders sentenced to prison/community split is nine months. The average term for offenders sentenced to probation only is 33 months, and the average for offenders sentenced to probation with confinement is 39 months.
Some of the report's other findings include the following:
• home confinement is the most commonly imposed alternative sentence;
• more than half (59.7 percent) of sentences imposed on citizens in fiscal year 2007 are within the sentencing guideline range;
• white offenders comprise approximately half of those sentenced to each of the alternative categories (ranging from 48.6 percent to 54.5 percent) while the proportion of black offenders is approximately one-fourth (ranging from 24.3 percent to 28.3 percent);
• Offenders with higher levels of education are more likely than less educated offenders to be sentenced to alternatives.
King said the report and a Federal Sentencing Commission hearing last summer of sentencing alternatives may be the beginning of a commission effort to suggest broader implementation of alternatives.