Cops, Contacts and Conviction Histories

The appropriateness of prison as a sanction is an ongoing and heated discussion. We issued a challenge to media to examine 100 redacted cases (no names, race or any kind of identifier) from prison inmates in every state and let a balanced jury of citizens respond to one simple question, does this person deserve to be in prison? Crime in America.

I just wrote, “Released Prisoners Commit Two Million Crimes-Five Arrests Per Offender,”  based on US Department of Justice data and spent the morning responding to remarks and inquiries. Most seemed shocked by the numbers.

Data below from the US Sentencing Commission report over six previous convictions for federally sentenced offenders; an equally startling statistic.

While I support sentencing reform, rehabilitation programs and efforts to divert lower-level offenders from entering the justice system, I have always been perplexed by the discussion regarding serious offenders with multiple arrests and convictions.

Their histories indicate a dedication to a criminal lifestyle. Based on the seriousness of the current crime and previous arrests and convictions, incarceration seems to be a reasonable and predictable outcome.

Yet the arrest and conviction history of people in state and federal correctional systems was not well documented from the standpoint of the totality of offenders until now. What’s below uses new numbers from the US Sentencing Commission and additional state court data to gain a better understanding as to the universe of convictions.

Why include additional court data? Per the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 42 percent of state felony convictions get a prison sentence. Judicial data provides a better overview of those charged with crimes.

Difference Between State and Federal Correctional Systems

The federal criminal justice system is considerably different from state justice efforts with a focus on immigration and drug cases. For example, a tiny percentage of federal crimes are violent (i.e., with federal court defendants, 2.4 percent are violent, 4.1 percent are sex offenses, 7.9 percent are weapons offenses).

Most cumulative state incarcerations are for violent crimes, Crime in America.

Fallout Before Prosecution

As you are aware, the vast majority of crimes and not reported and less than two in five reported crimes end in arrest. We also need to remind readers that many arrests are not prosecuted.

Federal Data: 16 to 50 percent of federal crimes are declined from prosecution.

State Data: 34 percent of state felony cases are not convicted (approximately nine percent involve a deferred adjudication or diversion outcome),  Crime in America.

Thus there is an immense universe of alleged criminality that never makes its way to federal or state conviction statistics.

State Court Arrests and Convictions

In 2009, 13% of felony defendants in the 75 largest counties were on probation at the time of arrest.

About 5% of defendants were on parole at the time of arrest in 2009.

About 3 in 4 defendants had been arrested at least once prior to the arrest on the current felony charge. Nearly all of the defendants with an arrest record had multiple prior arrest charges.

About 3 in 5 defendants had at least one prior conviction.

An estimated 14% of all defendants had 10 or more prior convictions

An estimated 43% of defendants had at least one prior felony conviction.

Overall, 30% of defendants had multiple prior felony convictions, and 11% had five or more.

42 percent of felony convictions result in a sentence to prison.

Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Federal Court Arrests and Convictions-Report Summation from the US Sentencing Commission

For the first time, the US Sentencing Commission provides complete information on the number of convictions and types of offenses in the criminal histories of federal offenders sentenced in a fiscal year. In completing this report, the Commission collected additional details about the criminal histories for 61,946 of the 67,742 federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2016.


Almost three-quarters (72.8%) of federal offenders sentenced in fiscal year 2016 had been convicted of a prior offense. The average number of previous convictions was 6.1 among offenders with a criminal history.

Public order was the most common prior offense, as 43.7 percent of offenders with prior criminal history had at least one conviction for a public order offense.

A conviction for a prior violent offense was almost as common as prior public order offenses, as 39.5 percent of offenders with criminal history had at least one prior violent offense. Assault was the most common violent offense (29.5%), followed by robbery (8.1%), and rape (4.4%). Just under two percent of offenders with criminal history had a prior homicide offense.

The nature of offenders’ criminal histories varied considerably by their federal instant offense. The substantial majority (91.7%) of firearms offenders had at least one previous conviction compared to about half of fraud (52.4%) and child pornography (48.2%) offenders.

Firearms offenders were also most likely to have violence in their criminal histories, as 62.0 percent of firearms offenders with a previous conviction had a violent previous conviction. Fraud offenders were the least likely of offenders with criminal history to have a violent previous conviction (26.2%).

Most (86.6%) federal offenders with criminal history had convictions that were assigned criminal history points under the guidelines. Offenders who had at least one three-point conviction were the most likely of all offenders with convictions to have a murder (3.8%) or rape/sexual assault (7.0%) offense in their criminal histories.

US Sentencing Commission

Leonard Adam Sipes, Jr. – Retired federal senior spokesperson. Thirty-five years of award-winning public relations for national and state criminal justice agencies. Interviewed multiple times by every national news outlet. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Former Director of Information Services, National Crime Prevention Council. Former Adjunct Associate Professor of criminology and public affairs-University of Maryland, University College. Certificate of Advanced Study-Johns Hopkins University. You contact me at [email protected].