The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Options for Congress Page: 2 of 23
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The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Options for Congress
Since the early 1980s, there has been a historically unprecedented increase in the federal prison
population. The total number of inmates under the Bureau of Prisons' (BOP) jurisdiction
increased from approximately 25,000 in FY1980 to over 205,000 in FY2015. Between FY1980
and FY2013, the federal prison population increased, on average, by approximately 5,900 inmates
annually. However, the number of inmates in the federal prison system has decreased from
FY2013 to FY2015.
Some of the growth is attributable to changes in federal criminal justice policy during the
previous three decades. These changes include increases in the number of federal offenses subject
to mandatory minimum sentences, changes to the federal criminal code that have made more
crimes federal offenses, and the elimination of parole.
The growth in the federal prison population can be a detriment to BOP's ability to safely operate
their facilities and maintain the federal prison infrastructure. The Government Accountability
Office (GAO) reports that the growing number of federal inmates has resulted in an increased use
of double and triple bunking, waiting lists for education and drug treatment programs, limited
meaningful work opportunities, and increased inmate-to-staff ratios. These factors can contribute
to increased inmate misconduct, which negatively affects the safety and security of inmates and
The burgeoning prison population has contributed to mounting operational expenditures for the
federal prison system. BOP's appropriations increased more than $7.1 billion from FY1980 ($330
million) to FY2016 ($7.479 billion). As a result, BOP's expanding budget is starting to consume a
larger share of the Department of Justice's overall annual appropriation.
Should Congress choose to consider policy options to address the issues resulting from the
growth in the federal prison population, policymakers could choose options such as increasing the
capacity of the federal prison system by building more prisons; investing in rehabilitative
programming (e.g., substance abuse treatment or educational programs) as a way of keeping
inmates constructively occupied and potentially reducing recidivism after inmates are released; or
placing more inmates in private prisons.
Policymakers might also consider whether they want to revise some of the policy changes over
the past three decades that have contributed to the steadily increasing number of offenders being
incarcerated. For example, Congress could consider options such as (1) modifying mandatory
minimum penalties, (2) expanding the use of Residential Reentry Centers, (3) placing more
offenders on probation, (4) reinstating parole for federal inmates, (5) expanding the amount of
good time credit an inmate can earn, and (6) repealing federal criminal statutes for some offenses.
Congress is currently considering legislation (e.g., S. 2123, H.R. 3713) that would put into effect
some of the policy options discussed in this report, including expanding the "safety valve" for
some low-level offenders, allowing inmates to earn additional good time credit as a part of a risk
and needs assessment system, and reducing mandatory minimum penalties for some offenses.
Congressional Research Service
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James, Nathan. The Federal Prison Population Buildup: Options for Congress, report, May 20, 2016; Washington D.C.. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc855847/m1/2/: accessed July 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; crediting UNT Libraries Government Documents Department.