Federal Prison Population shoots over 150,000

WASHINGTON: The population of the Federal Bureau of Prisons shot over 150,000 today, the highest number in history. "Federal imprisonment is growing faster than NASCAR racing. The growth of Federal imprisonment is out of control," said Eric E. Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Sterling, a veteran Federal criminal justice analyst, was counsel to the House Subcommittee on Crime from 1981 to 1989.

When President Nixon left office in 1974 there were fewer than 24,000 Federal prisoners. There were fewer than 50,000 Federal prisoners when President Reagan left office in 1989. The 100,000 mark was reached only in 1997. The Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) population is posted on their website, (http://www.bop.gov) in the Weekly Population Report. On April 13, 2001, the total in all BOP facilities was 150,152.

Close to 60 percent of the Federal prison population is made up of drug offenders. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, most new prisoners are low-level or medium level offenders. A Department of Justice study early in the Clinton Administration found that non-violent, low-level drug offenders with a minor or no prior criminal record constituted 21.2 percent of the entire prison population. After spending over $5 billion in the past decade to build new Federal prisons, overcrowding has increased from 22 percent to 32 percent over capacity.

The President's FY 2002 budget, announced this week, for prisons is $4.7 billion, with another $1 billion for more construction. In 1986, when Federal mandatory minimum sentences were enacted, the BOP budget was $0.7 billion.

"Stopping the cancer-like growth in Federal imprisonment requires several steps. First, Attorney General Ashcroft should direct Federal law enforcement agencies to refer low-level cases to state and local law enforcement agencies, and reserve Federal cases only for major international or national impact cases. The Attorney General should order Main Justice Department review of all proposed low-level drug prosecutions," said Sterling. Such a review would be required by the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act (H.R. 1681, 106th Congress), introduced by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) and 35 co-sponsors.

"Second, the President should dramatically increase Federal drug treatment funding. An additional expenditure of $680 million could reduce American cocaine consumption by about 20% (according to a 1994 RAND Corporation analysis), and would have a major impact on crime and the insurgencies in Colombia. This would be a tiny fractional increase in Federal health care spending.

"Third, President Bush should order a comprehensive review of the cases of low-level drug offenders and plan to release a significant number of them by Christmas. He should ask Federal judges to suggest to him prisoners who might deserve commutations of sentence. He should revamp the reprieve and pardon function housed in the overworked Office of the Pardon Attorney. Commuting the sentences of 1000 low-level offenders could save roughly $300 million over five years," concluded Sterling.

Eric E. Sterling, an attorney, was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee from 1979 to 1989, where he was principally responsible for anti-drug legislation and other anti-crime matters. Since 1989, he has been President of The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, a non-profit center that educates the nation about criminal justice issues.