Making Sense of Sentencing: State Systems and Policies


In each state, the legislature has established a criminal code and sentencing system. These govern decisions about which criminal offenders are eligible for community placement, jail or prison, and how long offenders should be behind bars or under supervision.

Gavel on a bookWhile each state’s system is unique, they share common objectives of holding offenders accountable and protecting public safety. Effective sentencing systems strive for fairness, consistency, certainty and opportunity. In order to continue to achieve these objectives over time, legislatures regularly update their criminal codes and change aspects of their sentencing policies. 

Key Facts

Key facts from this report include:

  • Thirty states and the District of Columbia—have felony theft thresholds of $1,000 or greater, 15 have set them at $500 to $950, and five have thresholds below $500.
  • Today, 33 states operate a primarily indeterminate sentencing system and 17 states and the District of Columbia operate a primarily determinate system.
  • Nearly every state has statutorily limited the length of a probation sentence; generally between three and 10 years for non-sex felony offenses.
  • About one-quarter of states instruct courts to consider risk assessments as part of the sentencing process.
  • Forty-one states and the District of Columbia allow most inmates to earn some time off their prison term.
  • Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia require a period of post-prison supervision for some or all exiting inmates.

This report was prepared under a partnership project of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Criminal Justice Program in Denver and The Pew Charitable Trusts’ public safety performance project, Washington, D.C.