Federal Prison Population Spiked 790 Percent Since 1980

The U.S. federal prison population has increased almost 790 percent since 1980 from about 25,000 inmates to 219,000 in 2012, according to a new Congressional Research Service report. Federal prisons make up the largest component of a U.S. prison system that dwarfs all others in the world. The agency tasked with providing policy analysis to Congress attributes the spike to a host of tough-on-crime reforms that include draconian mandatory minimum sentences, the elimination of parole for any federal crime committed after 1987, and increasing enforcement by federal officials:

Research by the Urban Institute found that increases in expected time served contributed to half of the prison population growth between 1998 and 2010. The increase in amount of time inmates were expected to serve was probably partially the result of inmates receiving longer sentences and partially the result of inmates being required to serve approximately 85% of their sentences after Congress eliminated parole for federal prisoners.

Noting diminishing safety returns in incarcerating nonviolent individuals in prison for short-term stints, CRS urges Congress to consider repealing or reducing the sentences for mandatory minimums, repealing federal criminal statutes wholesale, and expanding early release and probation programs, particularly for nonviolent criminals, which in 2010 made up 93.6 percent of the federal prison population. Those incarcerated for drug and immigration offenses make up well over half of the federal prison population.

Cash-strapped states overwhelmed by the immense costs of their bloated prisons are increasingly turning to criminal justice reform that favors alternatives to incarceration. In South Carolina, a 2010 program to divert more nonviolent prisoners to probation saved the state $3 million in just one year, while providing the tools for nonviolent offenders to successfully rehabilitate.


The federal government has yet to follow suit, although Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy recently called sentencing and drug reform a major priority for the coming congressional session. And just yesterday, two members of Congress introduced a new measure to regulate marijuana like alcohol in those states that have legalized it.