Just the Facts

Five Facts on the Federal Prison System

By No Labels
May 25, 2018 | Blog

The House overwhelmingly passed the First Step Act this week, marking a major step toward prison reform. But even if it does ultimately pass into law—the bill’s future is uncertain in the Senate—it only addresses a fraction of the prison population in America.

More than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and fewer than one in five are housed in the federal system. The majority reside in state prisons. Yet the federal system holds prisoners who were prosecuted by the Justice Department and it is an important part of the U.S. corrections system. Here’s what you need to know.


The federal prison population is declining

There are almost 184,000 people currently incarcerated in federal facilities, according to the Bureau of Prisons. That’s down from a high of more than 219,000 in 2013. Prior to that, the population was climbing for more than 30 years. The population in 1980, for example, was roughly 25,000.


Most inmates are in for drug offenses

Drug-related convictions account for almost half (46 percent) of the incarcerations in the federal system, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Nothing else even comes close. Offenses relating to weapons, explosives and arson are second most common, but they represent only about 18 percent. All other offenses are in single digits. For example, about 7 percent of federal inmates were convicted of immigration-related offenses.


A majority of inmates are serving more than five years

Three quarters of federal inmates are serving sentences longer than five years, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Among those, the largest percentage (46 percent, or almost half) are serving between five and 15 years. Only 2.8 percent are serving a life sentence. Fewer than 1 percent received a death sentence.

One in five federal convictions carries a mandatory minimum sentence

Sentencing reform, which would adjust the minimum sentences that judges are required to impose for certain crimes, is not part of the First Step Act. But the latest statistics show that only about one in five federal convictions carries a minimum mandatory sentence, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Of the 66,873 cases reported to the commission in fiscal 2017, only about 22 percent carried a required minimum penalty.


More than half are in low- or minimum-security facilities

There are currently 122 prisons operated in the federal system. More than half the federal prison population (54 percent) is serving time in low-security or minimum-security facilities, according to the Bureau of Prisons. Almost a third are in medium-security and about 12 percent are in high-security prisons.


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