Pew: Prison Time Surges for Federal Inmates
Date:  12-03-2015

Average period of confinement doubles, costing taxpayers $2.7 billion a year
Via Pew Charitable Trusts


The average length of time served by federal inmates more than doubled from 1988 to 2012, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months.1 Across all six major categories of federal crime—violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses—imprisonment periods increased significantly.2 (See Figure 1.) For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the elimination of parole, and other policy choices helped drive this growth, which cost taxpayers an estimated $2.7 billion in 2012 alone.3 Despite these expenditures, research shows that longer prison terms have had little or no effect as a crime prevention strategy—a finding supported by data showing that policymakers have safely reduced sentences for thousands of federal offenders in recent years.4

Federal prison system, costs experienced significant growth

Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they remain. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (after reaching a high of 61,712 in 2011).5 During the same period, the average time served by released federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months.6 These two upward trends—shown in Figure 2—caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336 percent, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012.7 One study found that the increase in time served by a single category of federal offenders—those convicted of drug-related charges—was the “single greatest contributor to growth in the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.”8

The long-term growth of this population has driven a parallel surge in taxpayer spending. As Pew reported in February 2015, federal prison spending rose 595 percent from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion in inflation-adjusted dollars.9 Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire U.S. Justice Department—including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and all U.S.

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