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Here's How We Can Actually Reduce the Number of People in Prison

Nearly 50 percent of federal inmates are serving time for drug offenses that carry mandatory minimums. Minor changes to sentencing and admissions could reduce the population by 35 percent, new analysis shows.
Photo by Tannen Maury/EPA

Three criminal justice reform bills currently making their way through the United States Congress are being touted by lawmakers as a progressive fix to the country's towering incarceration rate — and a new tool that measures actual reductions in the prison population promises to show how each of these proposals might help.

Released on Tuesday by the Urban Institute, a DC-based think tank, the Federal Prison Population Forecaster analyzes how much of a dip in the federal prison population can be achieved by shortening mandatory minimum sentences, reducing the number of drug offenders being sent to federal prison, and changing mandatory time-served laws.


Of the more than 200,000 Americans currently locked up in federal prison, nearly half are serving time for drug offenses, which means changes to federal drug laws could offer an easy way to reduce the country's incarceration rate — the highest in the world.

Those changes have made their way into some of the bills currently in Congress. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, proposed by Republican Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and described by experts as having perhaps the best chance at passing into law, would reduce the length of mandatory minimums for drug and weapons offenses for offenders with only light criminal histories, but would expand the minimums for those with felony drug offenses or gun crimes already on their records.

A similar bill in the House would reduce the federal three-strike mandatory life sentence to 25 years and offers judges more flexibility in handing down sentences. The most far-reaching bill — the Safe, Accountable, Fair and Effective Justice Act, introduced by Wisconsin Republican Jim Sensenbrenner and Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott — changes both the mandatory minimum sentences and the admissions process, sending fewer drug offenders to prison and sending them there with lighter sentences.

"Reduce new admissions" and "reduce length of stay" are two options that users of the Prison Population Forecaster may choose under the drop-down menu "select policy change," in order to calculate how greatly they could affect the prison population. The other menus are "select offense/admission type" and "select percent reduction."


According to the tool, cutting lengths of stay for drug trafficking offenses by 50 percent would reduce the federal prison population by 18 percent by 2023. If legislation also reduced the number of drug offenders being sent to federal prison — a less politically popular proposal — by 50 percent, it would further reduce the population by another 17 percent.

As substantial as these percentages are, it's important to keep in mind that the congressional bills only apply to the federal prison system, which holds far fewer inmates than state systems, whose total prisoners amount to roughly 1.4 million.

Brian Elderbroom, a senior research associate in the Justice Policy Center at the Urban Institute who helped develop the forecaster, said that one key takeaway of the analysis is that changes to drug laws can have a much greater impact on the federal prison population than comparable changes to the state prison system. Changing drug sentencing laws in state prisons will only yield moderate results, partially because half the inmates in state prisons are there for violent crimes, according to an earlier analysis by the Urban Institute.

"To achieve deep meaningful cuts to state prison populations, it's necessary to reform laws related to property and violent crimes," Elderbroom said. "In the federal system, we can have a pretty big impact by just focusing on drugs."

The average sentence for a drug offense is more than 11 years in the federal system. Since there is a federal requirement of serving 80 percent of one's sentence, the average inmate is serving 10 years or more in federal prison combined with an average of two years in a state system.


"The bottom line is, long prison sentences are not making us safer," Elderbroom noted.

As for reducing the number of admissions to prison for drug offenses, it will be important to look at different types of offenders and whether they might be better diverted into rehab or intervention programs or parole, particularly low-level street traffickers or mules who are often prosecuted by the states, as opposed to criminal enterprise kingpins that are targeted by federal prosecutions.

Vincent Schiraldi, commissioner of the New York City Department of Probation under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and currently a researcher at Harvard University's criminal justice policy management program, explained that the federal system is stacked with drug offenders because of an infusion of resources in the 1980s that focused on the war on drugs.

"The federal system was a sleepy little department in the 1980s and it exploded after that time because as the war on drugs and the war on crime heated up, the federal government wanted to get involved," Schiraldi said. "The feds wanted to have a piece of the war on drugs action."

Federal prosecutors began to prosecute local drug crimes in a way they never had before. Now the budget for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is enormous. The Department of Justice, which oversees it, would like to divert those resources elsewhere.

Schiraldi pointed to the fact that a number of US attorneys signed onto a law enforcement leadership group that announced support for criminal justice reform last week as a sign that the Justice Department wants to shrink the incarceration rate as much as many reformers.


"Now that things are turning around, they want to ease themselves out," he said.

The political will to reduce the prison population in the country has grown due to the enormous size, cost, and growth of incarceration over the past three decades, raising questions about the safety and civil rights of prisoners and staff. Additionally, research has cast doubt on the ability of long prison sentences to reduce recidivism rates or keep the public safer.

Jessica Jackson Sloan, the national director of the campaign Cut50, which aims to reduce the national prison population by 50 percent, said that she believes the time is right for legislators to pass federal reforms and to encourage states to do the same. She called the current set of bills in Congress a "great first step" and hopes that some version of them will be passed by the end of the year.

"There's something to be said for President Obama standing in the Rose Garden signing a criminal justice bill into law with the Republican leadership standing beside him saying we got this done," she remarked. "It will send a strong message to states that now is time for states to act."

The support among Americans seems overwhelmingly in favor of criminal justice reform, particularly in reducing mandatory minimums and creating diversion programs for offenders with drug addiction and mental health problems.

"Now is the time to act on this," Sloan said.

Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen