• U.S.

A Look At Who Is Behind Bars for Drug Crimes

2 minute read

There’s are a lot of oft-cited numbers about the federal prison population: between 1980 and 2012 the federal prison population grew by nearly 800%, the majority of those behind bars are locked up for drug crimes linked to the nation’s War on Drugs. But a new analysis of the federal prison population reveals details about the demographics about who exactly is behind bars for these crimes.

Researchers from the Urban Institute analyzed Bureau of Prisons data on the 2012 prison population and information from the U.S. Sentencing Commission to paint a more detailed picture of the population. The findings are not so surprising if you’ve been tuned in to the growing chorus of lawmakers pushing for criminal justice reform on both the state and federal level.

Of the nearly 200,000 federal prisoners, a little more than half are behind bars for a drug offense and almost all of the nation’s federal drug offenders committed a trafficking crime. And over a third, 35%, of federal drug offenders “minimal criminal history” and no prior imprisonment before sentencing.

In the table below, data provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that 54.2% of the 93,000 drug offenders analyzed are locked up for a cocaine-related offense.

The overwhelming majority of federal drug offenders are male, over three-quarters of whom, 76%, are people of color. Almost 25% are non-U.S. citizens.

You can use the interactive table below to shift between the most commonly trafficked drugs to get a sense of who is getting locked up for what.

This data comes one week after the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill that would curb many of the mandatory minimum sentences that justice reform advocates say have contributed to the ballooning federal prison population. While Congress works on bipartisan reform, the Justice Department has been implementing reforms that give judges leeway on sentencing.

The changes that are coming to criminal justice reform are notable and extend across party lines, however, advocacy groups argue they only offer solutions to some of the causes for the massive prison population. While the federal prison population has been declining and is expected to see further reductions through 2023, the Urban Institute has released a several other recommendations that both state and federal officials could take to see further reductions in the overall prison population.

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