Policy decisions contribute to steep rise in inmate population and costs.
From 1980 to 2013, the number of offenders incarcerated in federal prisons increased from approximately 24,000 to more than 215,000, making the federal system the largest in the nation. Policy choices contributed significantly to this expansion as lawmakers added criminal laws to the books, lengthened sentences, and abolished parole. To accommodate the growing inmate population, the number of federal prisons nearly tripled, driving a surge in corrections spending. Taxpayers spent almost as much on federal prisons in 2013—$6.7 billion—as they spent to fund the entire U.S. Department of Justice in 1980, after adjusting for inflation. Despite these expenditures, recent data show that a third of all offenders who leave federal prisons under community supervision return to custody for violating the terms of their release.