Incarcerated People in Federal Prisons Dropped Drastically in Last Four Years

In the past four years, the federal prison system cut its inmate population by one-sixth, which is a decrease of over 35,000 prisoners.

The federal prison holds only about 13 percent of U.S. inmates since criminal justice is mainly handled by the states, but it’s still a significant amount of people. In 2013, the rate hit its peak, holding 219,300 inmates. With the reduction of mass incarceration over the past four years, the federal inmate population has fallen to 184,000 by the end of 2017.

What’s caused the drop in numbers? Obama-era changes to drug crime prosecution and sentencing coupled with a historic level of clemency grants to non-violent federal inmates by President Barack Obama helped bring the national prison system to its lowest population size since mid-2004 and its lowest incarceration rate since the end of 2002.

The fall in numbers has continued during President Donald Trump’s first year in office thanks in part to the nations falling crime rates. Things could change, however, with Trump’s “tough on crime” rhetoric.

Also, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed the Obama-era policy of avoiding mandatory minimum sentences in low-level drug cases, which could result in future growth in the federal inmate population even with the decriminalization of marijuana, and also if crime continues to fall.

Another critical determinant of the prison population is whether Trump will use his powers to pardon or commute the sentences of federal inmates. So far he has only done so for one inmate this year, reducing the 27-year sentence of meatpacking executive Sholom Rubashkin, who was convicted of more than 80 counts of financial fraud in 2009.

Trump was also critical of the record number of clemency grants issued by Obama, which suggests he won’t be as lenient. Trump may be more inclined toward clemency grants later on in his presidency, but unlike Obama, his grants will likely lean more towards white collar criminals as opposed to federal drug cases.