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Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System

NCJ Number
Julie Samuels; Nancy G. La Vigne; Samuel Taxy
Date Published
November 2013
62 pages
This report evaluates various policy options for reducing the size and costs of the expanding Federal prison system.
This report by the Urban Institute evaluates various policy options for reducing the size and costs of the expanding Federal prison system. Current research indicates that in 2011, more than 90 percent of convicted Federal offenders were sentenced to prison, compared to only 50 percent in 1980, with long drug sentences being the primary driver behind this growth. In addition, Federal prisoners are required to serve at least 87 percent of their sentences while prisoners at the State level often serve less than 50 percent of their sentences. These factors have contributed to the overcrowding at Federal facilities with rates of overcrowding expected to rise to 55 percent by 2023. The options for reform evaluated in this report include modifying Federal drug prosecution and sentencing, giving judges more discretion in allowing exemptions to mandatory sentencing laws, lowering truth-in sentencing requirements, application of the Fair Sentencing Act to past cases of crack cocaine possession, extending earned and good time credits, and increasing the number of elderly and terminally ill inmates eligible for participation in early release programs. This report shows how all of these options can reduce prison overcrowding and prison costs to some degree. The report also shows, however, that any combination of these reforms can reduce costs, reduce overcrowding, and improve the quality and reach of programs designed to keep inmates from reoffending. Tables, figures, references, and appendix