Assessing Time Served

71 Pages Posted: 19 Sep 2016 Last revised: 24 Nov 2016

Date Written: November 23, 2016


This article examines the utility of a new way of determining when increased punishment should be imposed pursuant to “three strikes” laws or other recidivist enhancements. In the past two years, Congress and the United States Sentencing Commission have each considered criminal justice reform measures that would use the length of time an offender spent incarcerated as a proxy for the seriousness of his earlier criminal conduct. While this reform seems sound at first glance, the article ultimately concludes that its incorporation into current state and federal sentencing laws must be done carefully, if at all, and that doing so now may be premature.

The article compares this new “time served” approach with the current methods of determining the severity of the punishment imposed upon an offender for his prior crime. Current federal and state laws assess the seriousness of prior punishment using either the maximum statutory penalty — irrespective of the real sentence — or the sentence announced in court by the judge — even if only a small fraction of that sentence was actually served before the defendant was released. Compared with these methods, determining the severity of a prior punishment using a “time served” measure seems to be an improvement.

Real problems, however, lurk just below the surface. The article discusses in detail significant challenges with records gathering, defining the term of incarceration, and using the metric in a way that is consistent with due process guarantees. It suggests how the metric might be employed to minimize each of these concerns, but also concludes that the condition of state and local incarceration records may make use of the metric in the near future impracticable.

Keywords: sentencing; criminal law; criminal justice; prison; recidvisim; sixth amendment

Suggested Citation

Woods, Patrick Arthur, Assessing Time Served (November 23, 2016). 5 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol'y & Ethics J. 1 (2016). Available at SSRN:

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