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August 8, 2017

Too bad AG Sessions is not trying to take prison populations back to the 1980s or even the 1950s

Fe26824f81_the-wayback-machineIt has become popular to lament the various actions of Attorney General Sessions by saying he is taking us back to the 1980s.  Here is a smattering of critical commentary in this vein, the latest of which was published a few days ago in Reason:

Today, though, this Crime Report piece details a claim that AG Sessions has his wayback machine set even longer ago.  The piece is headlined "Sessions Takes DOJ ‘Back to the Fifties,’ Says New John Jay President," and here is how it gets started:

Karol Mason, the new president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, envisions expanding the school’s role so that it leads the national conversation on innovations in the courts, corrections and policing now that, she says, the U.S. Department of Justice has essentially bowed out, reports The Chief Leader in New York City.

Charging that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is moving the clock back on justice issues by decades — “I’d say to the fifties” — John Jay is well-positioned to step up, said Mason, who served as an Assistant Attorney General under President Obama.

Without commenting on which decade AG Sessions wants us to be living in, I just thought all this critical discussion of earlier eras provided an appropriate moment to remind everyone how much less the US relied on imprisonment in the 1950s and even the 1980s.

As detailed in this BJS document, back in 1955 the national prison population was just over 185,000, with about 20,000 in federal prison and the other 165,000 in state prisons. In 1985, the national prison population was just over 465,000, with nearly 30,000 in federal prison and the other 435,000 in state prisons.  And as this BJS report detailed, at the end of 2015, the national prison population was just over 1,525,000, with nearly 200,000 in federal prison and the other 1,325,000 in state prisons.  (There has been significant growth in the US population over the last 60 years, so the US incarceration rate has not increased quite as much as total incarceration levels.)  Of course, the Justice Department policies and practices along with changes in state policies and practices in the 1980s played a significant role in the increase in prison populations, and that is the foundation for the considerable hand-wringing about a return to 1980s-era criminal justice thinking.  

August 8, 2017 at 02:48 PM | Permalink


If Americans were Italians they had:
400-500 x 5 = 2.000 – 2.500 homicides per year
50-60.000 x 5 = 250.000 – 300.000 persons in prisons and jails.

Posted by: Claudio Giusti | Aug 9, 2017 10:57:20 AM

I'll just stick to federal sentencing since it compares apples to apples. At the end of President Reagan's term in 1989 there were 57,762 inmates confined in federal facilities.

At the beginning of President Clinton's first term, There were around 85,000 federal inmates. In 1994 the Federal Crime and Law Enforcement Bill was pass with the help of President Clinton.

After the passage of this bill, the prison population continued to climb steadily till it hit it's all time high in 2013. The federal inmate population exploded from 88,565 in 1993 to 219,298 in 2013.

After the passage of the drugs minus Two bill by Congress, around 13,000 inmates have received sentencing relief.
The tough on crime rhetoric we hear now is harsh, but advocates for sentencing relief would be happy to go back to the charging and sentencing of the 80s.

Posted by: beth | Aug 9, 2017 7:46:11 PM

Simple plan to control prison population:
1. establish max capacity for each prison
2. don't tell judges what population is
3. let judges sentence as appropriate.
4. When a new arrival causes prison population to exceed the pre-established cap, take the longest-serving prisoner out and shoot him.
Problem solved!
New arrival will be welcomed as well - especially by the friends of the newly deceased prisoner.

Posted by: Fred | Aug 10, 2017 10:53:35 AM

Correction for drugs minus two Credit where credit is due goes to the USSC.

Posted by: beth | Aug 11, 2017 4:03:37 PM

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