No country imprisons more of its citizens than the United States, where more than 2 million people are behind bars, or roughly 1 in 100 adults. The majority of those behind bars did not commit acts of violence, but were convicted of non-violent offenses, mostly involving drugs. Indeed, the war on drugs is responsible for quadrupling the U.S. incarceration rate over the last 30 years, which a new report shows has created dangerous levels of overcrowding in federal prisons.
In 1980, federal prisons held under 25,000 people. In 2013, federal prisons are now home to more than 219,000 people.
“This growth is unsustainable,” said Julie Samuels, a co-author of a new report from the Washington, DC-based Urban Institute, a think tank founded by US President Lyndon Johnson. For one, housing that people in state institutions is costly, with the federal prison budget for fiscal year 2014 of a projected $6.9 billion set to eat up more than a quarter of the Department of Justice’s total budget.
“Second, overcrowded federal prisons are dangerous, posing safety risks for staff and prisoners alike,” said Samuels. And US federal prisons are extremely overcrowded.
According to the report, “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System,” the average federal detention center exceeds its planned capacity by 35 to 40 percent. Overcrowding is even more of a problem in high-security prisons, which as of 2012 were operating at 151 percent of their capacity.
Part of the increase is due to increased law enforcement targeting of immigrant communities. President Barack Obama has ordered more deportations than of his predecessors: 2 million people kicked out of the United States and counting, many of whom were picked up for minor infractions. But, “Though the number of inmates sentenced for immigration crimes has also risen, long drug sentences are the main driver of the population’s unsustainable growth.”
The war on drugs, characterized by long mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders, disproportionately people of color, is not the product of any one president or party, but a policy agreed to by both major parties in the United States and prosecuted with enthusiasm by every president in modern history. Today, half of those in federal prisons are there for drug crimes that were once not treated as offenses worthy of prison time.
What changed is in 1984, the US Congress – at the time controlled by liberal Democrats – passed legislation requiring judges to issue long, mandatory minimum sentences to non-violent drug offenders. Called the “Sentencing Reform Act,” the bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, a conservative Republican. The signing of that bill and later, bipartisan “tough-on-crime” legislation in the 1986 and 1988 at the height of the media-fueled “crack epidemic,” coincided with a trend of state psychiatric hospitals shutting down and kicking out patients who, in addition to mental health problems, often had serious substance abuse issues. While there were more than 500,000 people in such institutions in 1960, by 2010 that number was closer to 50,000. People who would have been put in a hospital were instead put in a prison.
As the Urban Institute notes, before the massive escalation of the drug war in the 1980s, “a quarter of all federal drug offenders were fined or sentenced to probation, not prison.” Today, “95 percent are sentenced to a term of imprisonment,” with the average time served about twice what it was in 1983.
Reducing the federal prison population requires undoing the policies that have put more people behind bars in world history while doing little to affect actual rates of drug use. “The most effective way to reduce overcrowding,” according to the report, “is to lower mandatory minimums for drugs, which, alone, would reduce overcrowding to the lowest it has been in decades.”
Indeed, “Reducing the number of drug offenders is the quickest way to yield an impact on both population and cost,” says the report. “In 10 years, reducing certain drug mandatory minimums by half would save $2.485 billion and reduce prison crowding to 20 percent above capacity.”
There is actually some political support for that. In 2010, Congress passed the “Fair Sentencing Act,” which reduced – but did not eliminate – the disparity in sentencing for crack cocaine offenses compared to powder cocaine. Though crack and powder cocaine are chemically identical, possessing 1 gram of crack used to be treated exactly the same as possessing 100 grams of powder cocaine, whose users are generally more white and affluent than users of crack. The act, passed with the support of all but one member of Congress, cut that disparity to 18 to 1.
The report argues one way to reduce overcrowding in federal prisons is to make that reform retroactive: there are more than 3,000 people behind bars who would not be there had they been sentenced under the 2010 guidelines. Conservatively, releasing them would “lead to savings of $229 million over 10 years,” according to the report. Like other federal inmates, those drug offenders are currently ineligible for parole, another policy the Urban Institute says should change.
“Even with a mix of reforms, federal prisons may continue to be overcrowded,” says the report. “But a smart combination of policies will save taxpayers billions, make prisons less dangerous, and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from offending again.”
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