The federal prison system is almost ten times larger today than in 1980. (Texas prison population increased nearly six-fold over the same period.) The underlying data in the above chart comes from a new Urban Institute report titled, “Stemming the Tide: Strategies to Reduce the Growth and Cut the Cost of the Federal Prison System.” See related testimony from Nancy LaVigne from the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center at a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing today, in which she pointed out that, "The high costs of maintaining a growing prisoner population have contributed to the increases in the BOP budget relative to the rest of the DOJ: in FY 2000, BOP took up less than 20 percent of the DOJ budget, but we project that by 2020, it will consume more than 30 percent." While BOP spending remains small compared to, say, federal entitlement programs, the growth rate is still unsustainable, she argued. Two other witnesses (see here and here) attempted to rebut the Urban Institute study, and Grits may have more to say reacting to their comments in a future post.
To a much greater extent, even, than Texas' prisons, federal prison growth has been driven mainly by the drug war. According to testimony (pdf) by Federal Bureau of Prison Director Charles Samuels, Jr.:
The large majority of federal inmates, (177,000 of 219,000) are housed in facilities operated by the Bureau, which have a total rated capacity of just under 130,000 beds. The remaining approximately 42,000 inmates are housed in privately operated prisons and residential reentry centers. Most federal inmates (50 percent) are serving sentences for drug trafficking offenses. The remainder of the population includes inmates convicted of weapons offenses (15 percent), immigration offenses (11 percent), violent offenses (5 percent), fraud and other property offenses (7 percent), and sex offenses (10 percent). The average sentence length for inmates in BOP custody is 9½ years. Approximately 26 percent of the federal in mate population is comprised of non-U.S. citizens.It's remarkable to notice how different the makeup of state inmates in Texas is compared to federal inmates. By contrast, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's 2012 Statistical Report (pdf), 55.3% of Texas inmates are incarcerated for violent offenses (compared to 5% at the feds), and just 16.7% (compared to 50%) are incarcerated for drug offenses. (The percentage of drug offenders in state jail is higher than full-blown prison: 33% compared to 14.8%; the 16.7% figure includes both.)
The proportion of Texas inmates incarcerated for property/fraud/theft offenses is more than double that in the federal system - 16.1%. Only 1.8% of Texas prisoners are incarcerated for weapons offenses, compared to 15% for the feds.
The average sentence length of inmates on hand in TDCJ in 2012 was higher than the feds - 19.3 years compared to 9.5 years. But that's a bit deceptive because, of those entering Texas prisons (as opposed to "state jails," where the max sentence is 2 years), the average sentence length is 7.9 years, and those leaving Texas prisons on average served just 4.4 years.
The federal system keeps folks in longer because there is no parole, a fact which has generated severe overcrowding. Samuels, Jr. testified that: "System-wide, the Bureau is operating at 36 percent over rated capacity and crowding is of special concern at higher security facilities, with 51 percent crowding at high security facilities and 45 percent at medium security facilities." By contrast, Texas' prisoner numbers recently topped out and have begun to decline, allowing the state to close three prison units in the last two sessions. Added LaVigne, "The BOP anticipates adding over 25,000 beds by 2020, but most of these projects have not yet been approved and would not substantially reduce overcrowding."
Texas may face an overincarceration problem, but things are decidedly worse in the federal system.