A new analysis released by the nonprofit Sentencing Project is a classic case of good news and bad news.
On one hand, it finds a widespread trend toward lower incarceration levels: the combined state and federal total number of inmates has declined by 4.9 percent since hitting its peak in 2009, and the Federal Bureau of Prison housed 13 percent fewer inmates at the end of 2016 than it did in its peak year of 2013.
The report attributes the decline to several factors, among them sentencing reform by Congress in such areas as the retroactive reduction of disproportionately harsh sentences for crack cocaine as compared with powder cocaine; similar changes by the U.S. Sentencing Commission in federal sentencing guidelines; and Department of Justice directives cutting back on the share of drug cases bringing mandatory minimum sentences.
Despite the reduction in the federal prison population – the average annual decline of 12.5 percent between 2013 and 2016 was double the rate by which total state incarceration fell – it was not accompanied by any increase threat to public safety. In fact, violent crime rates now stand at nearly 40-year lows.
But at the same time, the group says, policy changes being pushed by the new team at the Department of Justice and by some on Capitol Hill could cause those numbers to increase. The report, Federal Prisons at a Crossroads, cautions that policy changes being pushed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and some members of Congress threaten to reverse recent progress in trimming the federal prison population. In fact, it notes in an aside, DOJ’s budget request for 2018 foresees a 2 percent hike in the number of federal inmates.
Specifically, the report points to the directive sent by the Attorney General to all federal prosecutors stressing the need to make greater use of mandatory minimum sentences even for minor-level drug offenders. It also views with alarm Sessions’ support for increased prosecution of immigration offenses and his policy shift away from the Obama administration’s decision to phase out the use of privately-run prisons for federal offenders. The Sentencing Project further warns against varied proposals in Congress to create new—or expand existing—mandatory minimum sentences.
A large part of the problem, the report says, lies in what it sees as the federal prison system’s overemphasis on stiff sentences for drug offenses, regardless of the level of threat inmates actually pose. It notes 11.3 years is the average prison term for federal inmates convicted on drug offenses, even though almost half (48 percent) of those sent to federal prisons on drug charges in 2009 were no higher than street dealers.
For those sentenced on federal drug offenses last year, a weapon played no part in 82 percent of the cases. Fully half of those drawing a federal sentence for drug offenses last year had little or no previous criminal history.
The report contrasts the federal prison system with those in the states, noting the federal system alone imprisons large numbers for non-violent convictions. Even so, it argues, increased incarceration and longer sentence terms will impose substantial human and government costs, without bringing a significant improvement in public safety.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.