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Tracking Offenders, 1988 (A BJS Report)

Tracking Offenders, 1988 (A BJS Report)

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Bureau of Justice Statistics. (1991). "Tracking Offenders, 1988 (A BJS Report)." Alaska Justice Forum 8(2): 2-4 (Summer 1991). Data from eight U.S. states, including Alaska, indicate that for every 100 persons arrested for a felony in 1988, 81 were prosecuted, 59 were convicted, 39 were sentenced to incarceration, and 10 were committed to a state prison, usually for more than a year. These findings are based on data submitted to the Offender-Based Transaction Statistics (OBTS) program of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, which tracks adult offenders from the point of entry into the criminal justice system through final disposition. Six additional states provide data beginning after the decision to prosecute. Based on the BJS report "Tracking Offenders, 1988," NCJ-129861.

Data from Alaska, California, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania indicate that for every 100 persons arrested for a felony in 1988, 81 were prosecuted, 59 were convicted, 39 received sentences to incarceration and 10 were committed to a state prison, usually for more than a year. These findings are based on data submitted to the Offender-Based Transaction Statistics program  (OBTS) of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. An additional six states-Alabama, Delaware, Nebraska, Utah, Vermont and Virginia-provide data that begin after the decision has been made to prosecute.

Table 1. Disposition of Felony Arrests in 8 States, 1988

Compared to persons arrested for violent, property or drug felonies in the eight states, those arrested for public-order offenses had the highest percentages of being subsequently prosecuted and convicted. (Public-order offenses include such crimes as driving while intoxicated and obstruction of justice.) Eighty-four per cent of persons arrested for public-order offenses were prosecuted, and 66 per cent were convicted of some offense, though not necessarily a felony or a public-order offense. Compared to persons arrested for other types of felonies, a smaller percentage of those arrested for public-order felonies received a prison sentence, 5 per cent, or a sentence to either jail or prison, 30 per cent.

For individuals arrested for property felonies, prosecution rates (82%) and conviction rates (62%) were higher than among violent or drug felony arrestees. However, sentences to prison (9%) were less likely among property arrestees than among drug arrestees (12%) or those arrested for violent crimes (12 %) . Those charged with drug felonies at arrest were the most likely of all persons arrested for felonies to receive a sentence to incarceration in jail or prison (47%). About a fifth of the arrests for violent crimes such as rape or robbery were likely to result in confinement in a state prison, but the likelihood of prison in the case of homicide was one in every two arrests.

For the 18 specific types of crimes examined, persons charged with homicide were the most likely to be prosecuted (90%). Other persons arrested for a felony with a high likelihood of prosecution included those charged with other sexual assault and larceny (88%), burglary (87%) and arson (86%).


The OBTS program captures information on the most serious charge and the most serious consequence for the arrestee at each decision point in the criminal justice process. A basic program requirement is that the arrestee must have been originally charged with a felony, an offense that may be punishable by imprisonment for more than one year. However, OBTS data reveal that more than a quarter of the felony charges at arrest were downgraded by prosecutors or the courts to misdemeanors or mere violations of local ordinances:

Dispositions by offense type

In the eight states reporting preadjudication dispositions, the police released 5 per cent of the persons arrested for felonies, grand juries or prosecutors failed to indict 14 per cent, and prosecutors filed nolle prosequi on 1.6 per cent. (Nolle prosequi is notice to the court that the prosecutor will not pursue the case-in some jurisdictions following approval by the court.) Of the total number of persons prosecuted, the courts dismissed 22 per cent of the cases, acquitted the defendant in one per cent, and rendered a judgment other than acquittal or conviction in 5 per cent.

The percentage of cases resulting in convictions varied by type of offense. For example, 78 per cent of the persons charged in court with a public-order felony and 63 per cent of the persons charged with a violent felony were subsequently convicted. For court dismissals, however, the difference was in the opposite direction: courts dismissed cases of 32 per cent of persons prosecuted for violent crimes and 16 per cent of those prosecuted for public-order crimes. Persons prosecuted could ultimately be convicted of an offense less serious than the arrest offense. This charge-reduction may have occurred from plea bargaining or because the evidence or testimony supported only a lesser charge. Conviction in OBTS refers to any conviction following a decision to prosecute.

Dismissals, acquittals, and other nonconvictions among those prosecuted were highest for those charged with violent offenses-37 per cent of those prosecuted following arrest for a violent crime had their cases terminated by other than a conviction. Assault, with 41 per cent of the cases ending by other than a conviction, rape (38% nonconviction rate), and kidnapping (37%) had the highest percentages of prosecuted cases that resulted in other than a conviction.

Table 2. Disposition of Cases Prosecuted in 14 States, 1988


Sentencing reflects the specific conviction offense, which may have been less serious than the arrest charge. For the OBTS data obtained from the 14 states in 1988, 66 per cent of those convicted were sentenced to prison or jail, and 34 per cent received probation or some other type of sentence without incarceration. Among persons arrested for a violent or property felony and convicted, there were two sentences to incarceration for every sentence to probation, fine, restitution or community service.

This article was based on Bureau of Justice Statistics report NCJ-129861, "Tracking Offenders, 1988." Copies of the entire report are available through the Justice Center.

Table 3. Likelihood of Being Prosecuted After Arrest for a Felony in 8 States, 1988