Public scrutiny pays off; U.S. federal prison population declines

After rising for years, new data reveals that the federal prison population has decreased. Statistics show that there are 4800 fewer inmates behind bars today than in 2013.

The size of the U.S. prison population has been the heart of public discussion amid recent years. The most up-to-date information reveals that one in every 100 individuals in the U.S. is behind bars. Although the U.S. encompasses 5 percent of the world's population, about 25 percent of the entire global population is in imprisoned inside the United States.

However, new data reveals that the federal prison population has decreased. Statistics show that there are 4800 fewer inmates behind bars today than in 2013. According to Attorney General Eric Holder, the decline is the first the U.S. has seen in years.

Such news is great, particularly given that many are serving time for nonviolent offenses and pose no threat to society, but many are wondering what's attributed to the decrease.

Potential reasons behind the drop

A big reason behind the drop in the federal prison population is no doubt tied to continued public pressure to reduce sentences for offenders serving long mandatory sentences for low level offenses. In the 1980s and 1990s, Congress implemented mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes, regardless of individual circumstances. Many small fish caught up in large enterprises faced decades behind bars, without the possibility of parole. As the U.S. incarceration rate skyrocketed, civil rights' advocates began to take notice.

Another reason is likely the result of the passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010. The law reduced the amount of both crack and powder cocaine for drug crimes that would trigger mandatory federal criminal penalties. It also eliminated the automatic 5 year mandatory minimum sentence handed down for simple crack cocaine possession.

According to the Associated Press, the federal prison population will likely continue to decline in the years to come. This past July, the Commission unanimously voted to reduce sentencing guidelines for certain federal drug crimes. Starting next month, inmates serving long sentences will be able to petition the court for a sentence reduction.

The AP indicates a "projected drop of more than 2,000 inmates in the next year, and nearly 10,000 in the year after."

The bad news

Although the decline in the U.S. federal prison population is good news, sadly, there has been a rise in the prison population on the state level. The Wall Street Journal reports that the number of inmates serving time at state prisons across the country rose by 6300 last year.

However, there is hope; relentless cuts to state budgets couples with continued public pressure to tackle unfair prison sentences handed down to low-level offenders, it's likely state lawmakers will put forth initiatives to mitigate the rise in state prison populations in the upcoming years.

Keywords: criminal defense, federal prison population, nonviolent offenses