NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Prison Reform Is a Necessity

August 6, 2013

The federal prison population, which currently exceeds 218,000 prisoners, has increased at an alarming rate for about three decades. Since 1980, the number of federal prisoners has grown by over 700 percent, while the U.S. population has only grown by slightly more than 32 percent, say Marc A. Levin and Vikrant P. Reddy of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

It is generally true that both state and federal prison populations rapidly outpaced population growth throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But in recent years, many state prison populations have declined, while the federal prison population keeps growing.

  • In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that the total population of incarcerated persons in the United States had decreased for four consecutive years from 2008 to 2011, but the decline came entirely at the state level.
  • The federal system continued to gain prisoners.

The prison population exploded after the passage of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, a major criminal justice overhaul which largely eliminated federal parole, reduced good time credits and transferred many sentencing decisions from the judiciary to Congress.

The federal prison budget grew as the federal prison population grew. The Federal Bureau of Prisons' budget increased by an average of $197 million per year from Fiscal Year (FY) 1980 to FY 2010, a total increase of approximately 1,700 percent.

Levin and Reddy offer a few possible reforms:

  • As with any government program, the criminal justice system must be transparent and include performance measures that hold it accountable for its results in protecting the public, lowering crime rates, reducing reoffending, collecting victim restitution and conserving taxpayers' money.
  • Crime victims, along with the public and taxpayers, are among the key "consumers" of the criminal justice system; the victim's conception of justice, public safety and the offender's risk for future criminal conduct should be prioritized when determining an appropriate punishment.
  • The corrections system should emphasize public safety, personal responsibility, work, restitution, community service, and treatment both in probation and parole (which supervise most offenders) and in prisons.

Source: Marc A. Levin and Vikrant P. Reddy, "The Verdict on Federal Prison Reform: State Successes Offer Keys to Reducing Crime & Costs," Texas Public Policy Foundation, July 2013.


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