America’s Biggest Growth Industry: Our Prisons

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Photo by Jobs For Felons via Flickr

Photo by Jobs For Felons via Flickr


Unless the systemic factors that have contributed to a 700 percent growth in the federal prison population over the last three decades are addressed, mass incarceration will continue to disproportionately affect poor and minority populations, a series of graphic charts released today by the Justice Policy Center of the Urban Institute make clear.

The charts are based on the findings of the Charles Colson Task Force’s final report, released last  January—and underscore the Task Force recommendations for key reforms to sentencing and corrections policy.

The Colson Task Force found that in the three decades between 1985 and 2014, the probability of receiving a prison sentence as opposed to probation for a federal crime increased from 50 percent to 90 percent, and that the average time served for drug and weapon crimes each went up from about two years to almost five.

Mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were the primary driver of the population increase. Another critical driver, the original report noted, was immigration offenses.

Of the more than 90,000 people in federal prisons for drug offenses at the end of FY 2014, 59 percent were sentenced to a mandatory minimum penalty.

Since 1994, black and Hispanic people have accounted for over 75 percent of growth in the federal prison population. “This means,” said the feature published with the graphic charts, “that the collateral costs of incarceration also fall disproportionately on communities of color.”

The feature, coming amid a federal election campaign which has made crime a major issue, said real changes to the system must be based on evidence-based principles.

The Colson Task Force in January said its recommended reforms would cut the prison population by 60,000 and save $5 billion by 2024. They included:

  • At sentencing, the federal system should reserve prison beds for those convicted of the most serious federal crimes.
  • In prison, the federal Bureau of Prisons should promote a culture of safety and rehabilitation and ensure that programming is allocated in accordance with individual risk and needs.
  • Throughout the prison term, correctional policies should incentivize participation in risk-reduction programming.
  • Prior to and following release, the federal correctional system should ensure successful reintegration by using evidence-based practices in supervision and support.
  • The federal criminal justice system should enhance performance and accountability through better coordination across agencies and increased transparency.
  • Congress should invest savings to support the expansion of necessary programs, supervision, and treatment.


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