After four decades of swelling prison populations and exorbitant costs to maintain such growth, state prison populations finally are decreasing and the overall crime rate is dropping, according to the non-profit Urban Institute. However, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) is not part of the downward trend.
“BOP is falling behind the state prison systems and is on track to squander one-third of the Justice Department’s budget by 2020,” said National Public Radio in a special report. “The federal prison population has grown eightfold since 1980.
It costs more than $6 billion a year to house more than 200,000 inmates in increasingly overcrowded facilities.” The NPR report cited research by the Urban Institute and the Pew Center.
Prisons cost a fortune and “that is at great expense to other fiscal priorities,” said Nancy LaVigne, director of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center. “That affects the DEA, the FBI, grants to states and localities for policing, for crime prevention, and for reducing gang violence.”
Beginning in the late 1980s, tough-on-crime politics convinced lawmakers to pass laws creating mandatory minimums, truth in sentencing, and Three-Strikes laws, NPR reported. No politician wants to seem soft on crime. In prison systems across the country, as prison populations rose, crime rates went down.
“There’s been this assumption that if you wanted to reduce crime, you had to lock up more and more people,” says Adam Gelb, director of the public safety performance project for the Pew Charitable Trusts. “But what we’re seeing in state after state, is states actually ratcheting back their prison populations and having significant drops in crime.”
“It appears that we have passed the point of diminishing returns, to where more and more prisons are not effective at reducing crime”
“It appears that we have passed the point of diminishing returns, to where more and more prisons are not effective at reducing crime,” said Gelb. “People are sick and tired of this revolving door. There’s got to be a better way.”
According to the Pew Center research, only three percent of the BOP’s population of federal inmates have been convicted of murder, assault or kidnapping. Half of all federal prisoners were convicted on drug-related charges.
NPR points out that for the first time, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are reviewing legislation that will “reduce prison sentences and drug penalties for nonviolent crimes.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee recently passed a bill to lower mandatory minimums for some drug crimes and to give judges more discretion during sentencing. The bill is now before the full Senate.