CRIME
02/07/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2013

Federal Prison Population Soars By 790 Percent Since 1980: Report

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.

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