by Nicole Fortier, counsel, Brennan Center for Justice
It’s well known today that the United States is the biggest incarcerator in the world. With five percent of the world’s population, we house nearly a quarter of its prisoners. That’s over two million Americans behind bars. The number of people we imprison has increased over 400 percent since 1980. But in that time the federal prison population grew over 700 percent. Today, it has 208,609 inmates housed within its walls – more than any individual state. The country now spends $80 billion per year on state and federal corrections.
This dramatic growth was no accident. It was the direct result of laws passed in the 1980s and 1990s by policymakers hoping to combat rising crime rates. Their solution: over-criminalize and over-punish behavior – particularly at the national level. They expanded federal criminal laws, increased penalties, removed sentencing discretion from judges, and encouraged states to do the same.
It’s clear that together, these laws cast too wide of a net. But it is important to dig further to understand whom they caught in that net. Exploring the demographics of those in federal prison can help us understand the real consequences of these policy decisions.