NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Federal Prison System Just Keeps on Growing

January 23, 2003

The Federal Bureau of Prisons reported a population of nearly 165,000 this month -- making the system larger than perennial prison giants California and Texas. Consequently, the Bureau of Prisons is one of the federal government's fastest growing entities.

In 1980, the bureau's budget was $330 million -- with 24,000 inmates in 44 prisons. In 2002, the budget was $4.6 billion and there were 102 prisons, with 11 more under construction. The system's population is projected to reach nearly 190,000 in 2005.

What is fueling the growth of the federal prison system? At least part of the increase, officials say, is the growing pool of noncitizen prisoners. Another factor is changes in federal policies.

  • Noncitizens are now nearly one-third of the federal inmate population -- increasing from 22 percent in 1998 to 28 percent in 2002.
  • The majority of them have been convicted of drug-related crimes.
  • The growth was also fueled by legislation expanding federal jurisdiction, strict sentencing guidelines, the abolition of parole and the recent transfer of more than 8,000 inmates from District of Columbia prisons.

While some states are experimenting with various policies to control prison growth, the federal system continues on a consistent upward curve, experts observe.

Source: Kevin Johnson, "Federal Prison Population Nears 165,000," USA Today, January 23, 2003.

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