How to reduce the federal prison population
Ryan King, Bryce Peterson, Brian Elderbroom, and Samuel A. Taxy
The federal prison system is by far the nation’s single largest jailer, with a total of 205,795 inmates at the beginning of October 2015. That’s roughly 50,000 more people in custody than in the second-largest prison jurisdiction, Texas.
Though the states collectively incarcerate the majority of people in prison in the United States—nearly 1.4 million as of 2014—any conversation about mass incarceration must consider the federal prison population. The growth, size, and cost of the federal system jeopardize the safety and security of inmates and staff, restrict the ability to provide programs designed to reduce recidivism, and crowd out other fiscal priorities.
At a time when Washington, DC, has been defined by partisan gridlock, federal prison reform appears to have captured the attention of lawmakers as a result of rapidly expanding consensus that the federal prison system is too large, too costly, and in dire need of comprehensive reform.
President Obama recently named criminal justice reform as a main policy priority for the end of his second term. Members of Congress have introduced bipartisan bills in the Senate and the House that would reform the federal sentencing system, increase opportunities to earn time off of sentences, and invest in treatment and reentry services. And many 2016 presidential hopefuls are decrying the number of incarcerated people who have been convicted of low-level, nonviolent drug crimes, arguing that our nation would be better served by investments in public health initiatives and preventive policies such as education and job creation.
After decades of growth, the federal prison population declined in 2013 and 2014 and is projected to drop another 4 percent through 2023. Though this reduction will provide some relief to the bloated federal prison system, it is not sufficient to relieve severe overcrowding, particularly in the highest-security facilities where inmates have the greatest need for intensive programming and present the greatest security threats.
Our Federal Prison Population Forecaster, an extension of our work estimating the effect of state prison reforms, uses Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) data and incorporates trends and recent changes in the federal criminal justice system to forecast population trends and the impact of changes to rates of admission or lengths of stay. This tool is designed to highlight the unique drivers of the federal prison population and the types of policy changes that will be necessary to reduce the BOP population. All numbers reported in this feature (unless otherwise noted) are from the end of fiscal year 2014, and all projections are of impacts through 2023.
Federal and state prison populations differ significantly
Our previous analysis of state prison data revealed that efforts to roll back the use of prison will require ambitious policy changes, and that those policy changes will vary widely across states. There is no one-size-fits-all sentencing reform package that will address the drivers of imprisonment in every state. Some states, like Alabama and Oklahoma, can significantly reduce their prison populations by cutting admissions for drug offenses. Other states—like Michigan and New York, which have already passed substantial drug sentencing reforms in recent years—must focus on property and violent offenses to achieve further meaningful reductions.
Similarly, the federal prison system has a population profile very different from that of any state. The Federal Bureau of Prisons holds roughly 14 percent of the 1.6 million people in prison nationwide. While half of those housed in state prisons have been convicted of a violent offense, fewer than 5 percent of federal prisoners’ most serious convictions were violent offenses.
Across states, the primary offense for 16 percent of the prison population is a drug conviction, weapons convictions are minimal, and immigration convictions are nonexistent. Conversely, in the federal system, drug offenses are the primary conviction for almost half (49 percent) of the prison population and immigration and weapons offenses account for another 25 percent.
Sending fewer people to prison for drug offenses could lead to meaningful reductions
Unlike any of the states, the federal prison system locks up a substantial number of people for drug offenses. Nearly one in three people in prison for a drug offense in the United States is held in the federal system. Thus, any efforts to reduce federal incarceration should start with drug offenses.
Much of the policy conversation at the federal level has focused on mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking, and the length of prison sentences in general. Cutting lengths of stay 50 percent for drug trafficking offenses would reduce the federal prison population 18 percent by 2023, compared with the baseline projection.
Far less attention has been paid to reducing admissions to prison for this population, despite the success that many states have had at diverting people arrested and convicted of drug offenses. This may be because 99.4 percent of people in BOP on a new commitment for a drug offense were convicted of trafficking. However, not all drug trafficking offenses are created equal, and less serious offenses can still result in long sentences.
According to the US Sentencing Commission, while only 7 percent of those convicted of a drug offense received an enhanced sentence for playing an aggravating role, over half were convicted of an offense that carries a mandatory minimum penalty, and over one-third had such a penalty applied at sentencing. Further, sentence length for drug trafficking offenses is directly tied to mandatory minimum penalties, even if the offense of conviction does not itself carry a mandatory minimum penalty.
Congress and the president should also explore alternatives to prison if they want to meaningfully reduce the federal prison population. Indeed, cutting admissions in half for drug trafficking offenses would reduce the federal prison population by 17 percent.
Tackling admissions and lengths of stay for weapons, immigration, and violent offenses
Though drug offenses account for nearly half the federal prison population, other offenses also represent important drivers of the BOP population.
- Weapons offenses are the second most common offense type in the federal prison population. Cutting lengths of stay for weapons offenses in half would reduce the federal prison population 7 percent.
- Immigration is the third most common offense—making up 10 percent of the BOP population—but even a substantial policy change that halved admissions would only reduce the prison population 4 percent.
- Violent offenses, which are a primary driver of most state prison populations, barely register within the BOP. Cutting admissions for all violent offenses in half would reduce the prison population a mere 2 percent.
Federal system reforms should focus on drug offenses
Unlike in the states, drug offenses are a major driver of the federal prison system. Substantial reductions to the BOP population can be achieved by reforming sentencing law and policy for drug trafficking. Additionally, decreasing sentence lengths for weapons offenses can substantially reduce the federal prison population. Reforms that address both drug trafficking and weapons offenses, especially through a mix of incarceration alternatives and shorter lengths of stay, will have the greatest impact.