What Is the Difference Between a Felony Sentence and the Actual Time a Felon Serves?


Quick Answer

As of 2015, state laws governing early release vary. In California, inmate populations, prior convictions, gender, medical considerations and the degree of violence involved in a conviction may affect the actual time a felon serves, explains Greg Hill & Associates. Prison overcrowding is the single most influential factor likely to result in an early release. Prisoners in Arizona can reduce time served by up to 15 percent by accumulating earned release credits, notes attorney James Novak.

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Full Answer

Under the California Penal Code, felons convicted of non-violent offenses are eligible for release after serving 50 percent of a sentence, provided they maintain good behavior and have no previous felony convictions, according to Greg Hill & Associates. Prisoners with prior convictions must serve at least 80 percent of their sentence, while those convicted of severe or violent crimes must serve a minimum of 85 percent.

In Arizona, a felon's ability to earn credits that count toward early release depends on participation in recommended programs, favorable evaluations, the nature of the offense and other factors, states James Novak. Prior to 1994, convicted felons were eligible for parole after serving at least half of their sentence. Since that time, statutory guidelines result in more time served before a felon is eligible for parole.

Occasionally, presidential and congressional actions reduce the time served by federal inmates, notes The Marshall Project. In July of 2015, the president commuted the sentences of 46 drug offenders. A 2014 amendment to the U.S. Sentencing Commission's guidelines may result in the early release of up to 46,000 inmates.

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