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Why cutting federal drug sentences is a big deal, in 2 charts

Let (more) people go (after serving a shorter sentence for federal drug crimes).
Let (more) people go (after serving a shorter sentence for federal drug crimes).

The bad news about reducing mass incarceration is that most of the prisoners in the US are in state prison, and many are serving sentences for violent crimes. But the good news is that reducing the federal prison population is much more straightforward: just hand out shorter sentences for drug crimes.

This chart from the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections (a blue-ribbon commission looking into incarceration and prison reform) and the Urban Institute shows just how much of the growth in federal prisons is due to drug crimes:

drivers prison growth 1994 2013

(Charles Colson Task Force)

Furthermore, the Task Force shows, the increase isn't that more people are getting admitted to prison for drug crimes — it's that they're staying for longer:

Longer drug sentences prison

(Charles Colson Task Force)

The Task Force's analysis shows why the current efforts by the US Sentencing Commission to allow federal drug prisoners to apply for early release could have such an impact. It also shows why bills like the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would lower the minimum sentence for federal drug criminals going forward, are so important to federal prison reform.

Ironically, reducing the state prison population isn't nearly as straightforward as reducing it on a federal level. And yet, states have been leading the effort to shrink their prisons. In Washington, DC, however, it's not news that half of all federal prisoners are drug offenders — but resistance from an older generation of "law-and-order" conservatives in Congress, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), is making it substantially harder for supporters of federal prison reform to take the simplest path.

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