The number of federal prisoners has ballooned from 25,000 inmates in 1980 to 219,000 today, according to a new Congressional Research report. That's a jump of almost 790 percent.
Think Progress notes that the report blames a sharp increase of "draconian mandatory minimum sentences, the elimination of parole for any federal crime committed after 1987, and increasing enforcement by federal officials."
Since 1980, the number of inmates in federal prison skyrocketed by about 6,100 annually.
The report found that a growing number of inmates are locked away for immigration and "weapons-related" crimes, but most new prisoners entering federal prison are put there for drug offenses.
"An issue before Congress is whether policymakers consider the rate of growth in the federal prison population sustainable," the report said. "If not, what changes could be made to federal criminal justice policy to reduce the prison population while maintaining public safety."
It cost tax payers $26,094 to house a prisoner for a year, and the Bureau of Prisons now spends close to $6.4 billion in public money annually, the report said.
Lawmakers have several options for dealing with the burgeoning inmate population. The report lists various possibilities including building more prisons, investing more in rehabilitation programs, reducing mandatory minimum sentences, putting more offenders on probation, giving federal prisoners the option of parole and increasing the amount of "good time" inmates receive for not getting into trouble behind bars.
Another option would be to decriminalize some or all drugs. Think Progress mentions that members of Congress recently introduced a bill that would legalize and regulate marijuana the way alcohol and tobacco is.
Vanita Gupta, Deputy Legal Director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the federal govenment needs to learn what states have already started to come to grips with.
“The federal government is moving in the opposite direction of most states," Gupta said in an email to The Huffington Post. "While states are finally recognizing how ineffective and costly the criminal justice system is and making smart reforms, the federal criminal justice system continues to grow. It is time for the feds to get some inspiration from the states and safely end our addiction to incarceration.”
The Congressional Research report comes just one week after Human Rights Watch released a scathing report condemning U.S. sentencing policy that the organization blames for bloating America's prison system.
Human Rights Watch points out that America is the prison capital of the world, with 1.6 million inmates, the highest total and per-capita number of prisoners in any country.
Human Rights Watch research also shows there is a growing number of older inmates that prisons are "ill-equipped to handle." About 93,000 young people under 18 sit in adult jails and another 2,200 in adult prisons.
There are also hundreds of children in solitary confinement, and racial and ethnic minorities "remain disproportionately represented in the prison population," the report said.
Research cited by the University of Chicago shows there is a general consensus amongst criminologist and other researchers that the increase in prison population over the last three decades has played a key role in the country's plunging crime rate.
But many criminologists also believe there are diminishing returns as more and more Americans are incarcerated.
Also on HuffPost:
Michael David Elliot
In this surveillance photo from a Middlebury, Ind., gas station provided by the Michigan State Police is Michael David Elliot who escaped from the Ionia Correctional Facility in mid-Michigan Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014 after creating a hole at the bottom of the two perimeter fences and crawling through, according to authorities. Elliot was serving a life sentence for fatally shooting four people and burning down their Gladwin County house in 1993.
Ronaldo Silva allegedly broke out of a Brazilian prison by dressing in drag in April 2012. He was caught less than an hour later by a cop who noticed that he was walking funnily in heels. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/17/prison-escape-in-drag_n_1431558.html" target="_hplink">Read more.</a>
Tiffany Hurd, 36, actually allegedly commited a jail break-IN. She was nabbed in July 2012 trying to hop a barbed-wire fence to enter Butler County Jail in Ohio. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/30/tiffany-hurd-jail-ohio_n_1719531.html" target="_hplink">Read more. </a>
Philippine Jail Break
Eleven prisoners, including bandit leader Datukan Samad, allegedly hacksawed their way through the iron grills of Maguindanao Province Jail in July 2012. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/10/philippine-jail-escape-datukan-samad_n_1661789.html" target="_hplink"> Read more.</a>
This picture shows 3 of the 4 inmates who allegedly escaped from a central Kansas jail in April 2012. Murderer Santos Carrera-Morales (center), kidnapper Eric James (left), assault convict Alberto Barraza-Lujan (not pictured) and aggravated battery convict Drew Wade (right) were all eventually discovered in Nebraska by authorities. The incident raised questions about prison security. 3 of the 4 prisoners allegedly drove away from the jail in a Nissan Altima. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/20/santos-carrera-morales-escaped-murderer-caught_n_1440194.html" target="_hplink"> Read more.</a>
Sometimes furry critters want to join the convicts. In July 2012, authorities removed a bobcat crawling around the roof of the Monroe Correctional Complex in Washington. Check out the animalicious video <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/17/bobcat-breaks-into-prison_n_1679634.html" target="_hplink">here.</a>
Cortez Hooper, Quincy Stewart
Murder suspects Hooper and Stewart allegedly escaped from a jail in Arkansas in May 2012. The pair reportedly used a hacksaw to break the bars on the windows of their second-story cells and smashed a pane of glass. Authorities say they pushed their mattresses out the window to soften their landings. The two were discovered by authorities shortly thereafter. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/28/arkansas-jail-break-manhunt_n_1551158.html" target="_hplink">Read more.</a>
Failed Jail Break Plot
Donald Kohut and Justin Heflin were charged with plotting to help murderer Christa Pike escape from prison in March 2012. Pike was convicted with her then-boyfriend of the 1996 slaying of Colleen Slemmer. The motive for murder was believed to stem from a love triangle. Pike and Tadaryl Shipp carved a pentagram into Slemmer's chest and then stabbed and beat her to death, according to authorities. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/21/christa-gail-pike-jail-break_n_1369934.html" target="_hplink">Read more.</a>
Suitcase Prison Plot
In July 2011, Maria del Mar Arjona, 19, allegedly tried to sneak her inmate husband Juan Ramirez Tijerina out of prison in Mexico in some luggage. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/04/suitcase-prison-escape-mexico_n_890012.html" target="_hplink"> Read more.</a>
Armin Christian, 65, was found in May 2012 after fleeing prison in South Carolina 31 years ago. Christian was reportedly living in Rhode Island as a handyman under a new name. He was originally sentenced to 11 months in prison for failing to pay child support. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/25/armin-christian-arrested-escaping-prison-south-carolina_n_1545604.html" target="_hplink">Read more.</a>
Man Got Out To Get Off
Even inmates can get horny. In March 2012, murder suspect Arien L'Italien allegedly left his cell and wandered over to the women's inmate block, in order to have sex with Karla Wilson. Authorities spotted L'Italien as he was crawling back to his cell. L'Italian and Wilson were both then transferred to different areas of the facility. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/13/arien-litalien-escapes-jail-sex-karla-wilson-maine_n_1342421.html" target="_hplink">Read more.</a>