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'Unprecedented' federal inmate increase strains resources

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The federal prison system faces an unprecedented growth in inmate population and Congress has to decide if the growth is sustainable or if it needs to change federal criminal justice policy to reduce the population while maintaining public safety, says the Congressional Research Service.

In a report (.pdf) posted by Secrecy News on Jan. 29, CRS says the number of inmates under the Bureau of Prison's jurisdiction has increased 790 percent from roughly 25,000 in fiscal 1980 to nearly 219,000 in fiscal 2012, an average annual increase of 6,100 inmates. During this time, BOP appropriations increased from $3.67 billion to $6.38 billion.

The report says that largest portion of new inmates are being incarcerated for drug offenses, but weapons and immigration charges-populations are also increasing. It attributes some of the growth to changes in federal sentencing policies since the early 1980s, such as "increasing the number of federal offenses subject to mandatory minimum sentences; changes to the federal criminal code that have made more crimes federal offenses; and eliminating parole."

There are also a number of secondary problems linked to these increased rates, says the report, including rising per capita costs, overcrowding and budget shortfalls preventing infrastructure repairs.

Some of the options open to Congress are building more prisons, investing in rehabilitation programs, moving inmates to private prisons or making policy changes. Policy changes could include expanding probation offerings, modifying mandatory minimum sentences and repealing some federal criminal statutes, says the report.

Congress should also "consider whether incarcerating more offenders would continue to generate a significant deterrent effect," says the report. It says outside research shows a decline in violent crime in the 1990s but that since then increasing incarceration rates have had diminishing marginal returns.

"The unprecedented increase… was not the result of a singular policy change," and the only suggestion CRS makes is that Congress consider a multi-faceted approach to address prison population growth and its impacts.

For more:
- download the report from the Secrecy News website, R42937 (.pdf)

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