Charting a Path Forward for Federal Corrections Reform


nchecked growth in the federal prison population has led to widespread, bipartisan agreement that our corrections system is bloated, costly, and ineffective. Policymakers can harness this momentum to reform the federal prison system, saving money and reducing dangerous overcrowding while improving public safety. Reform is difficult, but a path forward has already been laid out.

The Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, established by Congress, conducted a yearlong fact-finding mission to examine challenges in the federal corrections system and develop policy solutions.

Here, we illustrate their findings: the drivers of prison population growth, the policies that led us to this point, the Task Force's recommendations, and the reasons reform is so urgent and necessary.

Federal prison population has grown nearly 700 percent since 1980

The total federal prison population includes a small share of special populations, such as pretrial holds and those convicted of DC Code felonies. This feature focuses on the federally sentenced population only, in the years for which we have data, 1994–2014.

More than 2.2 million people are locked up in America’s prisons and jails, and the nation's single-largest jailer is the federal government.

Since 1980, the federal prison population has grown by almost 700 percent despite a steady decrease in the national crime rate over the same period. The number of people in federal prisons peaked at nearly 220,000 in 2013 before falling to roughly 196,000 by early 2016.

This growth has a high price. From 1980 to 2016, the Bureau of Prisons' budget shot up 685 percent to $7.5 billion. These funds mostly go toward the housing, infrastructure, and staff costs of incarceration, leaving little for rehabilitation and reentry efforts.

The collateral cost to families and communities is much harder to quantify. Children with incarcerated parents exhibit more negative outcomes, such as poor academic performance, depression, substance abuse, and physical aggression, than their peers. Whole communities can be disrupted and destabilized when residents—often men—cycle in and out of jail and return home unable to shake the stigma of a criminal record.

What's more, a growing body of evidence suggests that mass incarceration may actually undermine public safety, particularly if it comes at the expense of other public safety programs.

What’s driving growth?

Select an offense to view sentencing data:

The prison population looks very different today than it did decades ago. More people are sent to federal prison and for longer periods of time, largely because of policy changes first enacted in the 1980s.

Between 1985 and 2014, the probability of receiving a prison sentence as opposed to probation for a federal crime increased dramatically, from 50 percent to 90 percent. The number of convictions in US courts nearly doubled, from 40,924 to 76,835, and average time served for drug and weapon crimes each went up from about two years to almost five.

Of those changes, the biggest driver of growth was longer sentences for drug offenses.

Select an offense to view sentencing data:

The number of people entering federal prison for drug crimes greatly increased after the passage of key legislation in the 1980s but later stabilized and has stayed roughly the same over the past decade. The prison population continued to grow, however, because drug sentences are longer than they used to be. With sentences requiring years or even decades of incarceration, the number of people behind bars for drug crimes stacked up. The same is true for weapon and sex offenses.

We don’t see the same effect with immigration offenses because those crimes tend to have shorter sentences. Though roughly the same number of people are admitted to federal prisons for drug crimes and immigration crimes, substantially more people remain incarcerated for drug offenses.

The sheer number of people admitted to federal prisons for immigration offenses, however, makes it the third most prevalent type of offense among the federal prison population.

Mandatory minimums lead to longer sentences

Mandatory minimum sentences dictate penalties for certain drug crimes and other offenses, but many argue that they are too inflexible and severe, sending people to prison for years for minor offenses or on technicalities. Minimum penalties for drug offenses are based solely on the quantity of the drug and not whether the person charged used violence or played a big role in any drug trafficking organization.

Of the more than 90,000 people in federal prisons for drug offenses at the end of FY 2014, 59 percent were sentenced to a mandatory minimum penalty. Another 19 percent had been convicted of an offense subject to a mandatory minimum but were granted relief at sentencing.

Those convicted of drug offenses who had mandatory minimums applied at sentencing average over 11 years in prison, compared with about 6 years for drug offenses not subject to a mandatory minimum.

Other policy changes have also contributed to longer sentences. The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 established strict federal sentencing guidelines, abolished parole, and reduced the time that could be earned off a sentence for good conduct.

Who serves time in federal prisons?

To safely reduce the federal prison population, we need to take a closer look at who is in the system and where they’re housed.

A geographic look at the federal prison system

Tap a district to explore.
This map shows the number of people sentenced in each federal judicial district and the location of all federal prisons, including privately operated prisons. Yellow lines indicate the distance between a district and a prison housing at least 15 people sentenced in that district. The size of each circle is proportional to the total number of people housed in that facility in fiscal year 2014, from the smallest (103 people) to the largest (6,731 people).

The federal prison system is vast, with 122 facilities nationwide. The country also has 94 federal judicial districts that handle prosecution, sentencing, and postrelease supervision.

Federal prosecutors have wide latitude in choosing the cases they prosecute and the charges they file. So the number and makeup of people in federal prison from a given district may reflect the nature of crime in that district and local prosecutorial priorities. For example, while most drug and immigration cases are concentrated along the US–Mexico border (and, to a lesser extent, southern Florida), weapon and sex offenses do not follow such a clear geographic trend.

The Bureau of Prisons tries to assign people to prisons within 500 miles of their home, but more than a quarter of the prison population is housed farther away. Family support is critical for helping people return home after prison, but it can be difficult to stay connected over long distances. . Our map shows the distance between the judicial districts where people were sentenced (often, but not always, near their homes) and the prisons to which they were assigned.

Black and Hispanic people hit hardest by prison growth

Since 1994, black and Hispanic people have accounted for over 75 percent of growth in the federal prison population. This means that the collateral costs of incarceration also fall disproportionately on communities of color.

People of color, especially black men, are particularly affected by certain mandatory minimums. Crimes involving crack cocaine are punished more harshly than those involving powder cocaine, and black people are much more likely to be convicted of crimes involving crack.

Congress lessened this disparity with the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which resulted in a substantial reduction in the number of federal prosecutions for crack offenses. But the effects of the old law are still seen in the prison population: Although only 2,439 people were sentenced for crack cocaine offenses in 2014, about 23,000 people were in prison for crack offenses at the end of the fiscal year. Of that group, 63 percent had been sentenced before the Fair Sentencing Act and almost 90 percent were black.

Many in prison for drug offenses have minimal criminal histories

Of the more than 90,000 people serving time for drug crimes in federal prison in 2014, almost half (45 percent) had little to no previous criminal history, which also means they're less likely to commit another crime. More than 25 percent had no prior convictions, and almost 80 percent had no serious history of violence before their current offense.

People with weapon and immigration convictions tend to have more extensive criminal histories than those charged with drug offenses.

Most people convicted of drug offenses are in lower-security prisons

To deal with the large number of people entering federal prisons, the Bureau of Prisons has added many more beds across the system. Much of this expansion occurred in minimum- and low-security facilities, where 59 percent of the population is now housed. Over two-thirds of those in federal prisons for drug offenses are housed in minimum- or low-security facilities.

But this expansion has also diverted resources from where they are needed most. Overcrowding is worst in medium- and high-security facilities. Bureau of Prisons facilities were 20 percent over capacity at the end of 2015; high-security prisons were 45 percent over capacity.

Overcrowding can escalate tensions behind bars and create conditions that threaten the safety of corrections officers and the prison population. It also makes it harder for prisons to provide reentry programs, treatment, and health services. This is especially troubling given that individuals who pose a greater security risk may have the greatest needs for intensive programming. Moreover, every staff member is given security training, so everyone from teachers to psychologists can be reassigned to security posts when the prison is short-staffed, further cutting into delivery of services and programming.

A roadmap for reform

Congress, the judiciary, and the Obama administration have taken steps to improve the federal corrections system, but the work has just begun. Though these changes will provide some relief, they're not enough to end severe overcrowding.

In creating a path forward for truly reforming the federal corrections system, the Colson Task Force was guided by the following evidence-based principles, each informed by the overarching goal of improving public safety:

  • Sentencing decisions and correctional interventions should be individualized.
  • Correctional policy should improve public safety.
  • Incarceration, with its attendant costs to both those in prison and taxpayers, should be employed judiciously.
  • Data and research should guide practice.
  • Reforms should both address prison growth and improve public safety outcomes.

Reform could cut the federal prison population by 60,000 and save $5 billion by 2024

Based on a year of interviews, data analysis, and research, and guided by the principles above, the Task Force developed the following recommendations, described in greater detail in its report:

  1. At sentencing, the federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.
  2. In prison, the federal Bureau of Prisons should promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs.
  3. Throughout the prison term, correctional policies should incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming.
  4. Prior to and following release, the federal correctional system should ensure successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices in supervision and support.
  5. The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.
  6. Congress should invest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment.

Together, these recommendations could reduce the expected federal prison population in FY 2024 by more than 60,000. The decrease, largely a result of shortening most drug-related sentences, could save the federal government over $5 billion. Those savings could be invested in programs and services that help those in prison return home, avoid reoffending, and rebuild their lives.