Federal Prison Sentences for Drug Offenses Grew 36%

A study published by The Pew Charitable Trusts found that prison sentences for federal drug offenders grew by 36% since the passage of tougher laws in 1980’s and 90’s limited parole and set minimum sentences.  Not only are sentences longer, but the number of prisoners receiving probation decreased.


On average sentences were 74.2 months in 2011 (most recent year for comparison stats)  and only 54.6 months in 1980.  During this same time probation awards fell to 6% in 2014 from the 1980 high of 26%.

The rise in drug related violent crime brought about the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (eliminated parole) and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which set a five-year minimum sentence for some drug traffickers.  The increased sentencing has helped swell the ranks of the Federal inmates by 800% since 1980 and changed the mix within the prisons.   Currently inmates sentenced on drug related offenses make up about 49% of the federal prison population.

Larger prison population also requires a larger prison budget.  From 1980 to 2013, spending on the Federal prison system grew from $970M to $6.7B  (in inflation adjusted dollars).

According the report, “..the best available data suggest that increased penalties for drug offenders—both at the federal and state levels—have not significantly changed long-term patterns of drug availability or use..”  It goes on to say,  “Federal sentencing laws have succeeded in incarcerating kingpins and other serious drug offenders for whom prison is the appropriate option. At the same time, however, they have resulted in the lengthy imprisonment of many offenders who played relatively minor roles in drug trafficking.”

Was it worth it?   Probably not, but you decide.  According to the study,  the recidivism rate of inmates released from the Federal Systems on drug related charges is 29% – which is almost unchanged from the 1980 rate with shorter prison terms and better opportunities for parole.

Read the full study here.

Updated: September 2, 2015 — 2:04 am