Driven by draconian mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, the number of federal prisoners passed the 150,000 prisoner mark early this month and, according to the US Bureau of Prisons (BOP), will increase by nearly one-third to 198,000 prisoners by 2006. The cost to taxpayers of maintaining and expanding the federal prison system will be $4.66 billion in the next fiscal year alone, if the Bush administration's prison budget passes as is.
Under the proposed Bush budget, the BOP will get an 8.3% increase -- double the overall rate of increase for federal programs -- and will account for nearly one-fifth of the Justice Department's budget. Spending on federal prisons will total nearly as much as spending for the FBI and DEA combined.
Drug prisoners now make up 58% of all federal prisoners. In 1970, as the modern drug war era got underway, drug offenders constituted only 16% of federal prisoners. By 1987, as mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress in 1986 began to bite, the number of drug offenders had increased to 42%. By the end of the Reagan-Bush administrations in 1992, the proportion had risen to 59%. It has hovered in the same area ever since. In terms of actual prisoners, the number of drug offenders in the federal system rose from less than 4,000 in 1970 to more than 63,000 last year.
"Federal imprisonment is growing faster than NASCAR racing. The growth of federal imprisonment is out of control," said Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation (http://www.cjpf.org) in a press release last week. "The president's FY 2002 budget, announced this week, for prisons is $4.7 million, with another $1 billion for more construction. In 1986, when federal mandatory minimum sentences were enacted, the BOP budget was $0.7 billion," Sterling noted.
Sterling was counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime from 1981 to 1989 and is a veteran federal criminal justice policy analyst.
According to BOP spokeswoman Tracy Billingsley, the bureau's growth projections factor in growth in the overall US population and the transfer of Washington, DC, inmates into the federal system as the local prison complex is shut down. But, Billingsley told DRCNet, the rising number of drug prisoners doing mandatory minimum sentences is the primary factor driving the expansion of the federal prison population.
The situation in the federal prison system contrasts markedly with trends in imprisonment in the states. As DRCNet reported two weeks ago (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/180.html#incarceration), the rate of growth in state prison populations is leveling off with an annual growth rate of 2.4% -- the lowest rate of increase since 1971.
Mandatory minimums, along with a striking increase in the number of federal crimes and the abolition of parole in the federal system are causing the logjam, said Jack Levin, director of the Brudnick Center on Violence at Northeastern University in Boston. "At the state level we're seeing drug offenders, property offenders, and inmates who have committed low-level violent crimes coming out of state penitentiaries in large numbers," he told the Wall Street Journal. "That same phenomenon is not happening at the federal level. People check in, but they don't check out," said Levin.
Sterling and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation have policy prescriptions for ending the federal prison bulge: Quit making a federal case out of drug crimes, he said.
"Stopping the cancer-like growth in federal imprisonment requires several steps," said Sterling. "First, Attorney General Ashcroft should direct federal law enforcement agencies to refer low-level cases to state and local law enforcement agencies, and reserve federal cases only for national impact cases. The Attorney General should order Main Justice Department review of all proposed low-level drug prosecutions."
A bill introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and 35 cosponsors would do just that. The Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act (HR 1681 in the 106th Congress) would also reduce mandatory minimum sentences for a number of drug crimes.
"Second," continued Sterling, "the president should dramatically increase federal drug treatment funding."
"Third, President Bush should order a comprehensive review of the cases of low-level drug offenders and plan to release a significant number of them by Christmas. Commuting the sentences of a thousand low-level offenders could save roughly $300 million over five years."