Federal Prison Population Forecasts Provide “Reality Check” On Reforms


The Urban Institute analysis of the federal prison population featured yesterday in The Crime Report shows that those hoping for a large reduction in prisoners any time soon will find that it won’t be easy to accomplish, the New York Times says. The institute’s projections say that a 50 percent reduction in average sentences for federal drug crimes, which is far beyond anything proposed in bills now pending in Congress, would cut the number of federal inmates, now just over 200,000, by 18 percent by the year 2023. Achieving large gains would require politically difficult measures to trim the number of people sent to federal prisons in the first place, not just shortening their terms. That would mean charging fewer drug dealers with felonies and diverting more of them to drug courts or other alternatives.

“Now everybody seems ready to spike the ball in the end zone,” said Ryan King of the institute, an author of report, referring to the bipartisan push to moderate some drug sentences. “These forecasts provide a reality check.” The institute focused an earlier inmate population forecaster n state prisons, which hold 86 percent of U.S. prison inmates. That previous model showed that making a serious dent in the prison population must involve much more than reduced sentences for nonviolent drug offenders. In many states, significantly reversing the fourfold jump in the incarceration rate since the 1970s would require more difficult decisions, such as curbing sentences for violent criminals.

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