Policy Shifts Reduce Federal Prison Population
A decline in the number of federal prosecutions and in the severity of sentences for drug-related crime in recent years has resulted in a significant drop in the federal prison population, according to statistics from the Judiciary, the U.S. Sentencing Commission (USSC), and the Bureau of Prisons (BOP).
The federal prison population fell from a peak of nearly 219,300 inmates in 2013 to 188,800 in April 2017, a nearly 14 percent reduction, according to BOP statistics. The decrease reflects a dramatic shift in federal policies away from stiff penalties for drug trafficking and other drug-related offenses in recent years. It also has mitigated overcrowding at BOP facilities – the inmate population, once at 37 percent overcapacity, is now at 13 percent overcapacity.
Changes in sentencing guidelines are a major contributor to the inmate population decline. In 2011, the USSC implemented lower crack cocaine penalties in line with the Fair Sentencing Act passed by Congress the year before. The new guidelines were made retroactive, which resulted in the release of prisoners who had already served their time under the new guidelines. Because drug crimes account for nearly a third of all criminal filings in federal courts, changes in drug sentences have a big impact on the federal prison population.
Chief Judge Patti B. Saris, the immediate past chair of the Sentencing Commission, said at her final public meeting in December, “In arriving at these decisions, the commission found that crack cocaine penalties were not proportionate to the harms on society, and that the impact of the unduly severe penalties were borne most by minorities.”
In 2014, the commission took the step of cutting the length of sentences for all drug trafficking offenses, not just crack cocaine. Sentences were reduced by about 25 percent, and the changes were also made retroactive. In her remarks, Saris said it’s important for the public to know that “each individual case was reviewed by a federal judge to ensure that the offender did not pose a public safety risk.”
“Simply put, none of these reductions are automatic,” she said.
*From Judicial Business 2016.
Other factors contributing to the decreasing prisoner population:
- Federal prosecutions for all crimes have declined over the past five years. Criminal cases were brought against 77,357 defendants in fiscal year 2016, the lowest total since fiscal 1998, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Last year, 67,742 defendants were convicted and sentenced, compared to 86,201 in 2011, the USSC reports. However, the trend could slow or reverse in the coming months as new Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration step up prosecutions of drug-related crime and immigration offenses.
- Two Supreme Court rulings since 2015 resulted in sentence reductions for about 1,200 inmates. The court in Johnson v. United States found that one of the definitions of a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. A subsequent high court decision made the Johnson ruling retroactive, which prompted thousands of prisoners to petition for review of their cases. Many of those cases are still under review by the lower courts.