Urban Wire Stemming the tide of Federal prison growth
Laura Pacifici
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For years, lawmakers on Capitol Hill watched as the federal prison system continued to grow. But as the federal government increasingly tightens its belt through furloughs and budget cuts, Congressional leaders are turning their attention to curbing this unsustainable growth.

This issue is increasingly receiving bipartisan support, as policymakers from across the political spectrum join together to take action. The Chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for federal prison expenditures, Republican Frank Wolf, has plans to join with the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Chaka Fattah, to create a task force to assess and identify ways to reduce prison population and spending growth.

The House Judiciary Committee also recently launched a bipartisan task force—dubbed the Over-Criminalization Task Force of 2013—to review and streamline the nearly 4,500 federal offenses in the criminal code.

As they begin this work, policymakers are confronted with a bloated and ever-expanding system. In fiscal year 2013, for example, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) commanded a 25 percent share of the Department of Justice’s overall budget, representing a 4.2 percent increase from fiscal year 2012. If current rates of growth in the BOP’s budget continue, this agency is projected to consume nearly 30 percent of the DOJ’s budget by 2020.

The growth in the BOP’s portion of the budget is mirrored by dramatic increases in the federal prison population. The BOP population is now nearly 10 times what it was in 1980. In addition to posing substantial costs to taxpayers, the expanding BOP prison population prompts concerns about overcrowded facilities and the disproportionate impact of incarceration on certain subpopulations and communities.

So what can federal policymakers do to stem the tide of mass incarceration, saving scarce resources that could be better used to prevent cuts to essential services, such as federal law enforcement and state and local grants for drug courts, reentry programs, and gang reduction initiatives?

They can start by looking at the two main drivers of the growth in the federal prison population: increasing numbers of prisoners and longer sentence lengths.  In particular, the increase in time served by drug offenders—who make up half of the entire BOP population today—was the biggest factor in the growth of the federal prison population between 1998 and 2010.

Reducing the prison population requires policies that both divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison and impose back-end sentence reductions for those already incarcerated. While the BOP plays a key role in implementing some of the back-end changes, its ability to do so on a large scale is limited by, and dependent upon, statutes and budget constraints controlled by Washington lawmakers.

Moreover, making policy changes to curb federal prison growth requires input and support from a wide array of federal criminal justice stakeholders, such as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, corrections officials, and victims’ advocates.  Buy-in from these key decisionmakers will be essential to the success of attempts to drive down the federal prison population.

Levenworth Federal Prison, Map data ©2013 Google, DigitalGlobe

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Corrections Courts and sentencing Crime and justice analytics
Policy Centers Justice Policy Center