Why do criminals sometimes serve less time than they were convicted for?

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Sometimes you read that a criminal gets 20 years in prison, but people say “Oh he will be out in 10”. How does that work? Good behavior can not cut 10 years of a sentence, can it?

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1. The sentence is the maximum time the person can serve in prison. As long as they don’t commit any crimes in prison, they will only serve that time max.
2. Every few years a prisoner has the opportunity to defend themselves before a group of people called a “parole board.” If they can prove that they have received enough punishment to change them around, the parole board will recommend to the courts that they are safe to release back into society.
3. Due to the cost burden of holding so many prisoners, there is a need to be (relatively) lenient to a lot of folks applying for parole. So it’s easier than one might think, depending on the prisoner.

Tl;Dr

Prisoners will get released early very frequently because the prison system is so full that it requires parole boards to release people with increasing leniency. When people say “good behavior” they mean behavior relevant to a parole board.

Parole. It’s a system where those convicted can end up serving a portion of their sentence outside of the prison, provided they can convince a board of review that they aren’t a threat to the community and are unlikely to repeat offend. It serves a couple purposes. One, it eases the transition back into the public world. Two, it frees up a spot in a prison bed that can be used to house someone who’s a greater threat to the public.

In Parole, the individual is out of prison, but is still subject to mandatory drug tests, etc. and meets with a parole officer (half police officer, half social worker) who keeps tabs on them and makes sure they don’t go right back to doing what landed them in prison in the first place. They’re also restricted from traveling out of the state, and other things. So, 20 Years in prison can mean 10 in prison before they’re eligible for parole, and if granted, they’d serve the remaining years on parole.

The biggest factor is cost. Putting someone in prison is not free. It costs between 37K to 60K per year to do it. https://www.marketplace.org/2017/05/19/how-much-does-it-cost-send-someone-prison/ Sure, it’s relatively cheap to feed people, but having 24/7 guards runs payrolls very high. This is the same money that pays for schools and healthcare. Rather than having a productive member of society who has a job and pays taxes, putting someone in prison means you’re taking a lot of money away from everything else. There is a huge incentive for society to find ways to keep people out of prison. So while the victim who got his car stolen may be happy to have the perp locked up forever, it may not make sense for society as a whole. 20 years may be the maximum or the issued sentence, and if the criminal demonstrates that he can follow rules and behave in prison, it may make sense to put them on parole. When a budget cut occurs to prisons, you will end up with many more people on parole. Most recently, weed is being decriminalized because it simply doesn’t make sense to pay so much money to imprison non-violent offenders. Yes, they broke the law, and it’s ok to change laws.

Jails are overcrowded, and everyone knows that they do not reform people and prepare them for life back in society. If someone is showing good behavior, then perhaps they can be released early so that someone who really deserves to be in jail can ho there instead. You don’t just release them, they have to go on parole and meet a whole bunch of conditions related to the activities they are or are not allowed to do, and they have to check in periodically with an officer of the court to ensure that they are following the rules.

There’s also a positive effect on the prisoners behaviour of giving an incentive to be reasonable knowing that infractions will lose them remission. Which is a good thing.

In the UK fixed sentences contain a certain amount of remission which can be lost. And I think the rest of the time is on Parole, after that you are free and clear.

Life sentences are life, when and if Parole comes, the prisoner is on parole for life, and can be called back for any crime. Only in America do they hand out 900 year sentences, I suppose if you’re a good boy you can get out in 600