August 7, 2017

The distorted character of federal imprisonment

Sentencing Project - The federal prison system has grown to become the largest in the country. In 1980, federal prisons held 24,000 people. By 2016, 192,000 men and women were incarcerated in federal prisons, comprising about 13% of the total U.S. prison population.

The federal system is unique, in comparison to states, for imprisoning a large number of people for non-violent convictions. This is due in part to the jurisdictional focus of federal criminal courts, which has largely been on white-collar crime, bank robbery, large-scale drug and weapons distribution, and immigration law violations.
Federal Prison Population by Offense, 2015
fed prison pop by offense for website
Source: Carson, E. A. & Anderson, E. (2016). Prisoners in 2015. United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Half of the federal prison population is serving time for a drug offense. In contrast, more than half of the population in state prisons is serving time for a violent crime.

To the extent that the federal criminal justice system historically prosecuted drug crimes, this was primarily focused on large-scale drug rings. But in recent decades it has shifted from this mission. Many people who receive federal drug sentences are in the lower levels of the drug trade, were not caught with weapons or have limited criminal histories.

  • Nearly half (48%) of individuals receiving a federal drug sentence in 2009 were at or below the level of “street-level dealers,” which is defined as selling less than one ounce of drugs.
  • No weapon was involved in 82% of the cases in which someone received a federal sentence for a drug offense in 2016.
  • Half (50%) of those who received a federal sentence for a drug offense in 2016 had either no previous term of imprisonment or minimal criminal histories.
Federal courts have been obligated to impose stiff mandatory sentences on these defendants despite their low levels of engagement in the drug trade. This can be seen from both the average and extreme sentences being served by those in federal prisons:
  • People serving a federal prison term for a drug offense were serving an average of 11.3 years in 2012.
  • Almost half (49%) of the 3,861 individuals serving a federal life-without-parole sentence in 2016 were convicted of a drug crime.

Several recent reforms have scaled back the federal prison population, without harming public safety. The population in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons reached a peak in 2013, with 219,000 people. By 2016, this figure had declined by 12.5%, reaching 192,000. This was about twice the average nationwide rate of decarceration.

The reduction in the federal prison population was achieved through changes in sentencing law, sentencing guidelines, and prosecutorial charging policies.

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