President Trump’s criminal justice policies could increase the prison population after three straight years of declines, a public policy group warns.
The Brennan Center for Criminal Justice at New York Law School said more aggressive federal prosecutions in combination with ramped-up immigration enforcement could send more people to prison, a trend that had reversed under the Obama administration.
Mr. Obama’s efforts to cut the number of drug offenders in the nation’s prisons paid off with the federal and state prison population dropping in 2016. The drop was 1 percent, or 21,000 fewer prisons, leaving a total population of 1.5 million, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Federal prisons accounted for a third of the drop, reducing their population by 7,300 from 2015 to 2016 as Mr. Obama urged prosecutors to pursue lesser charges against nonviolent drug offenders.
It is widely believed former Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.’s memo asking federal prosecutors to bring lower charges to avoid mandatory minimum sentences led the decrease.
But in May 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy. Instead, ordering federal prosecutors to pursue the most serious, but provable offense.
Last month, Mr. Sessions rescinded another linchpin of Obama-era criminal justice enforcement when he reversed a trio of memos that guided the previous administration’s marijuana policies. Mr. Sessions’ move gives prosecutors to pursue marijuana enforcement in states where it is legal.
Marijuana is illegal at the federal level, but the Obama administration had a largely hands-off policy when it came to states that had legalized the drug.
Immigration arrests are also on the rise. Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials are up 30 percent over the last fiscal year, the Brennan Center said. Furthermore, ICE arrests of immigrants with no criminal conviction increased by 146 percent, the first uptick of any kind since fiscal year 2009.
“Over the next three years, these shifts could cause the federal prison population to begin increasing again, reversing what small progress had been made to reduce federal over-incarceration,” the report said. “Further, the administration’s words and deeds on criminal justice could disrupt bipartisan efforts to build a fairer, more effective justice system at the state and local levels.”
The Justice Department has forecasted a 2 percent increase in the federal prison population through fiscal year 2018, which would add roughly 7,500 inmates to the system. The Brennan Center said tougher sentencing may lead to just such an increase in prisoners.
“If Sessions presides over an increased reliance on mandatory minimums, the result could be an increase in the federal prison population.” the report said.