The total number of inmates in U.S. prisons increased slightly in 2013, halting what had been a three-year decline in the number of prisoners, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
The overall increase of 4,300 inmates was driven by a rise in the population of state prisons, the first since 2009. The population of those facilities rose by about 6,300, which offset the first decline in the federal prison population since 1980.
State and federal prisons held a combined 1.57 million inmates as of Dec. 31, 2013, down from a high of 1.61 million in 2009, the bureau reported.
The federal population dropped from 217,800 at the end of 2012 to 215,900 a year later. Since it last declined more than 30 years ago, the federal prison population has grown by almost 800%, according to Attorney General Eric Holder. The decline in 2013 followed nine years in which the federal inmate population grew by an average of 2% per year, leading Holder to call the decrease “nothing less than historic.”
“Clearly, criminal justice reform is an idea whose time has come,” Holder said in a September 2014 speech.
Policies across the country have recently trended toward rethinking harsh mandatory minimum sentences, especially for low-level drug offenders. For example, the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 seeks to reduce sentencing disparities between offenses involving crack and powder cocaine. The Smarter Sentencing Act, which was still pending before Congress as of January 2015,, would cut some federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses and would also give judges more leeway in sentencing.
Drug offenders accounted for nearly 49% of the federal prison population as of November 2014, according to the federal Bureau of Prisons. The next largest offense category was weapons/explosives/arson at almost 16%.
In 2013, Holder launched the Smart on Crime program, a wholesale review of the federal criminal justice system designed to ensure fairness and efficiency. The program’s goals include reforming sentencing to eliminate unfair disparities and reducing the population of an overburdened prison system.
In his recent speech, Holder said the federal inmate population is projected to decrease by 2,200 inmates in fiscal year 2015 and by an additional 10,000 in fiscal year 2016.
“My hope is that we’re witnessing the start of a trend that will only accelerate as our Smart on Crime changes take full effect,” said Holder, who announced recently that he will be stepping down as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
While federal prisons held fewer inmates in 2013, the number of prisoners in state facilities increased to nearly 1.36 million. Prison populations were up in 27 states, including Texas, California and Florida, which have the largest numbers of inmates.
There was a 2.8% increase in the number of women serving time in state or federal prisons from 2012 to 2013, but the number of male inmates only inched up by 0.2%, according to the BJS report, which was released in September.