Understanding and Reducing Federal Prison Overcrowding

The Department of Justice’s Inspector General has released a report highlighting challenges within the federal prison system. The IG correctly identifies overcrowding as a root cause of numerous other problems, including inhumane conditions for prisoners, risk to correctional officers and budgetary burden.

Unfortunately, some of the media coverage and blog commentary about the report made the mistake of equating the federal prison population with the “US prison population”. This conflation leads to a misunderstanding both of the unique nature of the problem in federal prisons and the range of the solutions, because the federal prison system is a small, atypical part of the U.S. prison system.

If you don’t know that the federal prison system is different than the (almost entirely state-run) U.S. prison system, you would misunderstand the IG report to mean that the US prison population is relentlessly rising and is increasingly composed of drug offenders. In fact, the number of people in US prisons has been dropping since 2010 and the proportion of inmates serving time for drug offenses hasn’t been so low since the 1980s.

This realization redirects attention in a productive way by raising a question: What is different about federal prisons that makes them out of step with the broader national de-incarceration trend? They differ in many ways of course, but the most critical for overcrowding is that Congress abolished parole in the federal system in 1984. Nearly three decades without the option of paroling rehabilitated inmates virtually assures that a prison system will become overcrowded.

If Congress would move to reverse that policy, and the Bureau of Prisons would do a better job of implementing Attorney General Holder’s recently proposed expansion of compassionate release (which the IG report argues is not being well used) the federal prison system would quickly fall in line with the rest of the US prison system as a contracting rather than expanding enterprise.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.