FMC Home Link PBS Program LinkFMC Book LinkViewer's Voices LinkInteractivity LinkTeacher's Guide
  Book Intro LinkBook Authors LinkBook Download LinkCredits Link
FMC Logo 1
  < Back to Contents
  Chapter Twelve:

  Capital Punishment
  Offenses of Prisoners
  Juvenile Offenders



FMC Logo 2  


Offenses of Prisoners

chart link spacer



Toward the end of the century, the proportion of new state and federal prisoners committed for property crimes declined, while the proportion committed for drug crimes increased.
Among felons committed to state and federal prisons for terms of more than a year, relatively few were sentenced for a violent crime—about one of every four new prisoners in 1910 and about one of four in 1996. The most frequent offense among perpetrators of violent crime was aggravated assault, which may or may not have involved injury to the victim. The presence of a weapon in an assault classified it as aggravated in most jurisdictions. Murderers, robbers, and rapists together made up about 7 percent of new inmates. 

For most of the century, the majority of new prisoners were convicted of property offenses, divided almost evenly among burglary, larceny, and fraud. At the end of the century, little more than a quarter of incoming prisoners were sentenced for property offenses, although the incidence of those crimes did not decline dramatically. The burglary rate was slightly lower in 1996 than in 1970, but rates of larceny and fraud were significantly higher. The diminishing representation of property offenders among new prisoners is attributable in part to the growth of the absolute size of the prison population and in part to a tendency for the criminal justice system to treat property crimes more leniently than in the past. In 1996, only one of three property offenders went to prison after a felony conviction; a greater number received probation, while some were sentenced to short terms in local jails. 

In the last decade of the century, the biggest change in the offenses of new prisoners was an increase in the proportion sentenced for drug offenses. Some were sentenced for trafficking and some for possession, with most of the latter group serving after a plea bargain from a trafficking offense. 

The “other crimes” category includes a wide variety of offenses such as espionage, counterfeiting, violations of securities law, the harboring of fugitives, evasion of customs duties, illegal possession of firearms and explosives, immigration fraud, bribery of officials, and abuse of office. Additional offenses in this category—perjury, obstruction of justice, and jury tampering—arise from within the justice system itself. 

The chart covers only civilian prisoners. The population of the federal government’s separate prison system for military personnel did not grow at all after 1970. With about 2,000 inmates, the military system operated at less than 50 percent of capacity at the end of the century.

Chapter 12 chart 6

Source Notes
Source Abbreviations

HCS, table 5.1; Jodi M. Brown and Patrick A. Langan, State Court Sentencing of Convicted Felons, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 164614 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1988), table 2.8; and BJS web site at (accessed September 1, 2000). For the rates of property offenses and rates of larceny and fraud, see SA 1979, table 291, and SA 1998, table 343. For the rise in drug sentences, see Bureau of Justice Statistics, Drugs and Crime Facts: Drug Law Violations: Pretrial, Prosecution, and Adjudication, from the Bureau of Justice Statistics web site at (accessed September 1, 2000). For the distribution of felony sentences, see Jodi M. Brown and Patrick A. Langan, Felony Sentences in the United States, Bureau of Justice Statistics, NCJ 175045 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1999).


<<Previous      Next>>  


PBS Program | Trends of the Century | Viewer's Voices | Interactivity | Teacher's Guide