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Truthiness in Punishment: The Far Reach of Truth-in-Sentencing Laws in State Courts


  • I thank Matthew Freedman, Valerie Hans, Jonathan Koehler, Anne Piehl, and the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences Program on Judgment, Decision Making, and Social Behavior for financial support. Michael Shores and Justin Hoffman provided invaluable research assistance. All mistakes are my own.

Department of Policy Analysis and Management, MVR Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853; email:


Truth-in-sentencing (TIS) laws require that violent felons serve large fractions of their sentences behind bars. In practice, the scope of these laws may be either more or less broad than the legislative intent. Using a large sample of defendants arrested for violent felonies and charged between 1990 and 2004, I do not find evidence that prosecutors or judges manipulate charges or sentences in a way that counteracts the spirit of TIS laws; instead, I find that the passage of TIS laws is associated with approximately 12- to 18-week longer sentences for people who are arrested for TIS-eligible crimes, but plead guilty to TIS-ineligible misdemeanors. This spillover effect of TIS laws into misdemeanor sanctions suggests that instead of being undone in the courtroom, TIS increases punishment for all violent offenders, not just those technically subject to the law.