Former President Barack 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, for the third straight year.
The drop was small — 1 percent, or 21,000 fewer prisoners, leaving a total population of about 1.5 million, the Bureau of Justice Statistics said in releasing the new totals Tuesday.
Federal prisons accounted for a third of the drop, cutting their population by 7,300 from 2015 to 2016, as Mr. Obama’s administration urged prosecutors to pursue lesser charges against non-violent drug offenders.
“A large chunk of this story is at the federal level and the state story is reflective of those same sorts of concerns,” said Douglas Berman, an Ohio State University law professor, who has authored books on sentencing. “We’ve seen drug sentencing reforms across the country and that is one of the most high-quantity types of cases that can contribute to this reduction.”
Roughly 47 percent of federal prisoners had been sentenced for drug offenses as of September 30, 2016, according to the BJS’s most recently available data. Nearly all of those sentences were for drug trafficking. The Obama Justice Department urged prosecutors to consider forgoing the most serious charges if there was reason for leniency.
And Mr. Obama himself made frequent use of his clemency powers, commuting sentences of hundreds of offenders he felt had served enough time.
Those changes have had a major impact on black prisoners, the new statistics said. The black prison population dropped 4 percent in 2016, compared to whites and Hispanics, which declined 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively. Over the past 10 years, the number of incarcerated blacks has dropped 29 percent, according to the BJS.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a group that advocates for criminal justice reform, called the reduction among the black population “very encouraging news”
“We’ve had an extreme racial disparity in incarceration in recent decades and for the first time in several decades were seeing shifts in racial disparity,” he said.
In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed prosecutors to avoid charging low-level drug offenders with charges that would trigger severe mandatory minimum sentences. Only defendants who met certain criteria such as not belonging to a gang or large scale cartel qualified for lesser charges.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded that policy in May, telling prosecutors throughout the country to seek the strongest possible charges and sentences against defendants.
The effect of Mr. Sessions’ policy reversal might not be known for some time.
“The big story of the Holder initiative was not just prosecutors pursuing a lower sentence, but maybe they were not even taking the case into the federal system,” Mr. Berman said. “It is not entirely clear if the Sessions memo will bring more cases into the system.”
Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against 77,152 defendants in fiscal year 2016, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. That’s marks the lowest total since 1997 and a decline of 25 percent since fiscal year 2011, when 102,617 defendants were charged.
Mr. Berman said if prosecutors are still selective about which cases to pursue, but demand tougher sentences, it will likely increase the prison population. But that impact won’t be known for some time.
“If a lower number of folks are coming in, but they are all getting six years instead of four years, it will take four years to see the impact of that,” he said.
Mr. Trump must nominate and win Senate confirmation for each of the 93 U.S. attorney jobs across the country. In March 2017, the president suddenly fired 46 Obama-era holdovers, forcing deputies to assume leadership roles while Trump searches for replacements.
So far, Mr. Trump has nominated 58 people and 46 have been confirmed. Last week, Mr. Sessions named 17 interim U.S. attorneys to deal to close the gap.