My father always said that figures lie and liars figure. That piece of advice has molded me into the consummate cynic that I am. The following data about the evolution of federal sentences over the past 25 years is disturbing.
Across all six major categories of federal crime — violent, property, drug, public order, weapon, and immigration offenses — imprisonment periods increased significantly from 1988 to 2012. For drug offenders, who make up roughly half of the federal prison population, time served leapt from less than two years to nearly five.
Two factors determine the size of any prison population: how many offenders are admitted to prison and how long they stay. From 1988 to 2012, the number of annual federal prison admissions almost tripled, increasing from 19,232 to 56,952 (the zenith was in 2011 when 61,712 inmates were admitted). During this same window, the average time served by federal offenders more than doubled, rising from 17.9 to 37.5 months. These two upward trends caused a spike in the overall federal prison population, which jumped 336%, from 49,928 inmates in 1988 to an all-time high of 217,815 in 2012.
The single greatest contributor to this explosive growth was the incarceration of those convicted of drug offenses. There are obvious fiscal and societal costs associated with the war on drugs. The societal costs are tough to measure on a tidy graph whereas the fiscal costs are both easy and disturbing to illustrate. Federal prison spending rose 595% from 1980 to 2013, from $970 million to more than $6.7 billion. Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013 as they spent in 1980 on the entire DOJ, including the FBI, DEA, and the US Attorneys’ offices. Can there be any doubt as to the need for reform??