The Incredible Shrinking Prison Population

Contrary to popular perception these days, America’s prison population is falling — dramatically. For approximately 30 years, as the nation fought back against increases in violent crime, total state and federal prison populations steadily rose. The effect was dramatic: crime rates fell to less than half of that previously. But those trends have changed demonstrably.

Since 2011, the federal prison population has decreased by over 20,000 (over 9 percent). The Bureau of Prisons (BOP) projected a decrease of nearly 15,000 for Fiscal Year 2016 alone. As of January 28, 2016, there were 195,893 federal inmates (with 160,265 in actual BOP custody), compared to 214,149 at the end of 2014. In fact, BOP has said that the population is on track to be at its lowest level since 2005 (when it was 187,394), with admissions — which have declined every year since 2011 due to the Obama administration’s non-prosecution policies — and releases continuing to decline for the foreseeable future.

Total state prison populations are also falling significantly. Since 2009, the total state prison population has dropped every year, and is over 56,000 lower today than it was then. Notably, California’s Prop 47, which was intended to ease prison overcrowding and costs, has reduced the state prison population by 30,000; but the state now spends more than three times what it did 20 years ago when the population was a similar size, and police are reporting sharp increases in crime.

Perhaps, then, it should not come as a surprise that the FBI has reported we are beginning to see an overall rise in violent crime during the first half of 2015, with a 6.2 percent increase in murders, a 2.3 percent increase in aggravated assaults, and a stunning 9.6 percent increase in rapes. The Washington Post recently described the 17 percent increase in homicides in the nation’s 50 biggest cities as “the greatest increase in lethal violence in a quarter century.”

In advocating for “criminal justice reform,” supporters often claim that we spend too much on federal prisons and so we must drastically cut the prison population by drastically cutting sentences for big-time drug traffickers and armed career criminals. But this is nothing more than a nice-sounding talking point designed to lure fiscal conservatives into supporting an effort that will harm public safety and end up costing taxpayers. Last Congress, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the “Smarter Sentencing Act,” which would have reduced drug mandatory minimums by half and released hundreds of thousands of prisoners earlier than under current law, would increase spending by about $1 billion and reduce revenues by $42 million.

No one ever mentions that all this will really do is shift the costs from prison budgets to crime victims, who are left to deal with physical, psychological and emotional injuries, economic losses, and the struggle to be made whole. Renowned criminologist Iowa State University Professor Matt DeLisi testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that “releasing 1 percent of the current BOP population would result in approximately 32,850 additional murders, rapes, robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries, auto thefts, and incidents of arson.” This isn’t complicated: more criminals on the streets means more crime and more victims.

Our responsibility is to reduce crime and protect the public interest. Arbitrarily cutting prison populations under the guise saving money carries a significant cost — public safety.