Although the overall U.S. prison population declined slightly in 2011, the federal prison population continued to rise, with rates of drug and immigration offenders that eclipse those held for violent crimes. While only 8 percent of federal prisoners were sentenced for violent crimes in 2011, almost half of federal inmates — 48 percent — were in prison for drug crimes, according to Department of Justice statistics. Another 11 percent were held for immigration offenses — one of the largest-growing segments of the prison population.
These numbers reflect the impact of the aggressive U.S. “War on Drugs,” a major contributor to the United States’ standing as the number one jailer in the world. Overall declines in U.S. prisons of 0.9 percent are attributable to state prisons, as some states have been moved by budget crises to adopt innovative reforms, and some jurisdictions have moved toward decriminalizing minor drug offenses.
But federal drug law remains draconian, with harsh mandatory minimum sentences for sometimes minor nonviolent roles in drug deals. What’s more, one of the major causes of the state prison population decrease was the 2011 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that California state prisons are cruel and unusual under the Eighth Amendment. A drastic decrease in California’s prison population has resulted from what is known as realignment, in which prisoners are moved from state prisons to county jails, where local sheriffs have greater discretion over how to deal with offenders — for better or for worse — and may send them to mental health treatment, home surveillance, or community service rather than hold them behind bars. The California shift accounts for more than half of the decrease in the U.S. prison population, and overall state spending on prisons continues to be the fastest-growing budgetary item after Medicaid.