Over the last three decades, imprisonment has become the most common sanction in the federal criminal justice system, says the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Public Safety Performance Project. Nine in 10 federal offenders were sent to prison in 2014, up from less than half in 1980, as the use of probation declined steadily. Federal judges sentenced 2,300 fewer offenders to probation in 2014 than in 1980, even though their caseload nearly tripled during that period. Pew says changes in the kinds of offenses and offenders in federal court may have contributed to the shift toward prison and away from probation. (By contrast, about one fourth of felony sentences from judges in the nation’s 75 largest counties were probation as of 2009, says the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.) Sentencing policies established during the 1980s and 1990s also played an important role by mandating prison time for many offenses for which probation had routinely been ordered previously.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Congress enacted dozens of laws prohibiting probation and requiring prison terms for many common federal crimes, including drug trafficking and illegal firearms possession. In 1984, Congress created the U.S. Sentencing Commission and charged it with establishing guidelines that federal judges were required to follow. The guidelines, which were intended to promote consistency in federal criminal penalties, mandated imprisonment for a variety of offenses—including fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion—for which probation had been routine. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed the guidelines”advisory, but their effects remain evident: More than three-quarters of federal fraud offenders, for example, got prison terms in 2014 compared with less than half in 1980.