« Great new Politico Magazine feature on "Justice Reform: The Decarceration Issue" | Main | In praise of (split) Fourth Circuit panel prioritizing sentencing fitness over finality »

April 23, 2020

According to BOP reporting, federal prison population now shrinking about 1,000 persons per week

Every Thursday morning, one can see at this webpage an official refreshed count of the total number of federal inmates as calculated weekly by the Federal Bureau of Prisons.  As noted before, that page also has data on the total number of federal inmates for each fiscal year going back to 1980.   For some numerical context, these data show that in FY1995 the federal prison population first hit six digits and stood at 100,958; in FY2007, federal prison population had nearly doubled to 200,020; and in FY2013, the federal prison population hit a modern high of 219,298.

After 2013, a range of political, legal and practical realities helped create a new and steady trend of reduced federal incarceration levels.  Retroactively applied reductions in crack sentences and then in all drug sentences contributed, but the most important factor may have been fewer federal prosecutions: data here from the US Sentencing Commission shows roughly 20,000 fewer offenders being sentenced in the federal system between 2011 (when 86,201 persons were sentenced in federal courts) and 2017 (when "only" 66,873 persons were sentenced).  Yet, starting in 2018, the number of offenders being sentenced in the federal system started to tick back up; in 2019, according to the USSC, there were 76,538 sentenced federal offenders.  New good-time credit flowing from the FIRST STEP Act and other reforms in that Act helped thwart a complete reversal in the downward trends of the total number of persons in federal prison.  I noted in this post back in July 2019 that the federal prison population had dropped under 180,000 prisoners for the first time since back in FY 2003.

Though we are now really only a little more than a month into our COVID world, it is not too early to notice how the virus and reactions thereto is now driving federal prison populations down even more.  Specifically, here are a few recent dates and BOP population counts:

March 19: 175,500 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 2:    174,837 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 9:    173,686 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 16:  172,349 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

April 23:  171,434 persons reported by BOP as "Total Federal Inmates"

After a slow start, we have now seen over the last three weeks an average drop in federal inmates as reported by BOP of around 1,100 persons.  And we are now at the lowest federal prison population since 2002.

Though pleased to see this trend, I am inclined to take a "glass half empty" perspective on these numbers.  For starters, these numbers include the 24 federal inmate deaths that BOP has officially reported, and I cannot help but wonder if they also reflect some (large?) number of sick federal inmates who have been moved to medical facilities outside of the BOP network. Moreover, even a 4000-person reduction in the federal prison population from March 19 to April 23 represents less than a 2.5% overall reduction at a time when there likely are tens of thousands of vulnerable persons confined in high-risk federal prison environs.  (I suggested in this post right after Attorney General Barr issued his first restrictive home-confinement memo that more than 10,000 might be eligible for home confinement under even those guidelines.)

Reflecting on these numbers raises some other interesting issues and questions.  The BOP's COVID-19 Update page, as of midday April 23, is reporting that "the BOP has placed an additional 1,440 inmates on home confinement."  That number represents only about one third of the 4000-person reduction in the federal prison population from March 19 to April 23, and so I am left to speculate about other factors in play here.  I have been noting many sentence-reduction motions being granted by federal judges, but that likely accounts for only a few hundred additional releases.  More grants of pretrial release may also be part of the story, but I also wonder about the impact of (a) deferred prison report dates and (b) reductions in the number of new sentencings and/or new persons getting sentenced to prison.  

Remarkable times.

A few of many prior related posts:

April 23, 2020 at 11:44 AM | Permalink


Also a factor - defendants sentenced in January still haven't been transferred from local jails to the BOP and are instead sitting in local jails not being counted in the total federal inmate number.

Posted by: an AFPD | Apr 23, 2020 7:58:50 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB