Federal Prison Population Increases Tenfold in Past 30 Years, and is Expected to Keep Growing, New Report Claims
Date:  12-13-2012

High federal prison rate gobbles up 25 percent of Department of Justice budget
Since 1980 the population of federal prisoners has increased to today’s rate of over 218,000, a tenfold increase, according to a new Urban Institute (UI) report. What’s more, the high number of federal inmates accounts for 25 percent of the Department of Justice’s budget, claims UI.

Why are there so many inmates being held by the Federal Bureau of Prisons? The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System: Drivers and Potential Solutions, written by Nancy C. La Vignie and Julie Samuels for UI offer answers, and recommends ways to correct the problems associated with the high incarceration rate:

  • Front-end decisions about who goes to prison and for how long have the greatest impact, suggesting that reductions in sentence lengths -- particularly for drug offenders -- can most directly contain future growth.

  • "Back-end" changes, such as increasing earned credits for early release, can also help alleviate the pressure.

  • The federal system can learn much from state efforts to contain prison populations and costs; doing so will require the cooperation and support of numerous players across all branches of the federal system.

    The Growth & Increasing Cost of the Federal Prison System report relates that 50 percent of federal inmates are drug offenders.

  • In FY 2010, about 90 percent of these sentenced offenders received a sentence of imprisonment, with about 10 percent receiving probation

  • The average sentence for all offenders with a term of imprisonment in FY 2010 was 54 months. Sentence lengths vary significantly by the type of offense, from an average of 91 months for weapons offenders, 36 months for fraud, and 20 months for immigration offenders

  • Half the drug trafficking offenders sentenced in FY 2010 were in the lowest criminal history category

  • Drug trafficking offenders had an average sentence of 78 months

    Another reason for the high number of federal prisons according to La Vignie and Samuels is that “at least” fifteen percent of annual admissions to federal prisons are the result of violations of supervised release rules. At the end of FY2010

  • Thirty percent of post-conviction supervision cases (15,561) closed with revocation

  • Technical violations accounted for 57 percent of the revocations, minor violations for 6 percent, and major violations for 36 percent
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