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February 5, 2013 (Inter Press News Service)

Congressional Research Service Reports on Growth of Federal Prison Population

A new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) provides an assessment of the growth of the federal prison population, noting that over the last 30 years, the United States has incarcerated far more people than any other country, today imprisoning some 716 people out of every 100,000.

According to the CRS report, the numbers of incarcerated people has led to a level of overcrowding that is now “taking a toll on the infrastructure” of the federal prison system.

A growing number of these prisoners are imprisoned for charges related to immigration violations and weapons possession.  But the largest number is for low-level drug offenses – an approach that report author Nathan James, a CRS analyst in crime policy, warns may not be useful in bringing down crime statistics.

The U.S. incarceration boom can be traced 30 years back to changes within the federal criminal justice system. Very harsh sentences,  a “get tough” approach on crime under which even nonviolent offenders face stiff prison sentences, and an increase in juveniles and very elderly people being put in prison has now led to massive overcrowding in the federal prison system.

In contrast, states appear to be working to counter over-incarceration.

According to a new report by the Sentencing Project, prisoner populations in the United States overall declined by around 1.5 percent in 2011.  In addition, last year lawmakers in 24 states adopted policies that “may contribute to downscaling prison populations”

Issue Area(s): Sentencing Policy, Incarceration, Racial Disparity, Drug Policy