Quick Facts

Facts image

Prison size and growth

Since Congress created mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes in the 1980s, the federal prison population has grown from 24,000 prisoners to over 218,000 prisoners – the largest prison system in the country.[1]

The United States has more people behind bars – 2.3 million – than any other country in the world.[2]

One in every 100 Americans is in prison or jail.[3]

In 1980, the U.S. spent about $540 million on federal prisons; in 2013, we’ll spend over 12 times as much – over $6.8 billion.[4]

Sentences for both nonviolent and violent crimes have grown at roughly the same rate, costing taxpayers billions:  prisoners released in 2009 served sentences that were, on average, 36 percent longer than those of offenders released in 1990.[5]

 Over 1.7 million children have a parent in prison in the U.S.[6]

Between 1991 and midyear 2007, parents held in state and federal prisons increased by 79% (357,300 parents), and children of incarcerated parents increased by 80% (761,000 children).[7]

The federal prison system is overcrowded by almost 40 percent.[8]

There is no parole in the federal criminal justice system – all federal prisoners are required to serve at least 85% of their sentences.[9]

75,579 (39.4%) of the 191,757 offenders in BOP custody as of September 30, 2010, were subject to a mandatory minimum penalty at sentencing.[10]

Prison costs 

The federal prison system consumes over 25 percent of the entire Department of Justice budget. Prison costs are eating up money that could be spent on police and protecting the public from violent offenders.[11] 

On average, it costs almost $29,000 to keep one person in federal prison for one year.[12] 

State spending on corrections has grown 300 percent in the last 20 years.[13]  

Taxpayers spend over $50 billion annually for state prisons.[14] 

Drug offenders 

Nearly half of all federal prisoners are serving prison sentences for drugs.[15] 

In 2012, drug offenders made up about one third of the federal criminal case load.[16] 

In 2012 alone, over 23,000 people were sent to federal prison for a drug offense.[17] 

Each year, about 60 percent of all federal drug offenders are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence.[18] 

In 2012, almost 7,000 people were convicted in federal courts for marijuana offenses, more than for any other type of drug.[19] 

In 2012, over half of all convicted federal drug offenders have little or no criminal record.[20] 

In 2012, only 15 percent of all federal drug offenders had a weapon involved in the offense.[21] 

In 2012, only 6.6 percent of all federal drug offenders were considered leaders of a drug conspiracy.[22] 

About one in every five state prisoners is serving time for a drug offense.[23] 

Length of incarceration and lack of alternatives 

The average federal prison sentence is 9.5 years.[24]

In 2012, the average federal prison sentence for a drug offender was almost 6 years.[25] 

In 2012, the average federal prison sentence for a crack cocaine offender is about 8 years.[26] 

In 2012, the average federal prison sentence for a methamphetamine offender is over 7.5 years.[27] 

In 2012, 90 percent of all federal offenders received a sentence of imprisonment; only 10 percent received probation or home confinement.[28] 

In 2012, 96.5 percent of all federal drug offenders received prison sentences.[29] 

Drug Courts produce cost savings ranging from $3,000 to $13,000 per client. These cost savings reflect reduced prison costs, reduced revolving-door arrests and trials, and reduced victimization.[30]  

Nationwide, for every $1.00 invested in Drug Court, taxpayers save as much as $3.36 in avoided criminal justice costs alone.[31] 

Nationwide, 75% of Drug Court graduates remain arrest-free at least two years after leaving the program.[32]  

Application and Impact of Mandatory Minimums 

In 2012, 23 percent of federal drug offenders faced a mandatory minimum but did not receive it because they provided “substantial assistance” to the prosecution, commonly known as snitching.[33] 

In 2012, 23.8 percent of federal drug offenders faced a mandatory minimum but did not receive it because they qualified for the drug “safety valve” for nonviolent, low-level, first-time offenders.[34] 

In 2010, 10,694 individuals were sentenced to mandatory minimums in federal courts, including:

  • 7,212 for drug offenses
  • 2,222 for gun offenses
  • 805 for child pornography offenses
  • 673 for identity theft offenses
  • 322 for sex abuse offenses.

This total – 10,694 individuals – represents 14.5 percent of all federal offenders sentenced in FY 2010.[35]

Hispanic offenders also account for the largest group of offenders (38.3%, n=7,601) convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. Blacks are the next largest group, at 31.5 percent (n=6,261), followed by White offenders (27.4%, n=5,447) and Other Race offenders (2.7%, n=543). United States citizens account for 73.6 percent (n=14,639) of those offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty. More than 90 percent (90.3%, n=17,975) of the offenders were men.[36]

Almost 32% of people receiving a mandatory minimum sentence had little or no criminal record.[37]

Hispanic offenders benefit most often from the safety valve; Black offenders benefit least often.[38]

Mandatory minimum sentences may actually motivate people to go to trial. According to the Commission, 94.1% of those convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum pled guilty, while 97.5% of the offenders not facing a mandatory minimum pled guilty. The Commission also found that “the longer the mandatory minimum penalty an offender faces, the less likely he or she is to plead guilty.”[39]

United States citizens accounted for 73.6 percent of all offenders convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum penalty.[40]

Public safety 

All 17 states that cut their imprisonment rates over the past decade also experienced a decline in crime rates.[41] 

Public opinion 

84% of Americans believe that some of the money that we are spending on locking up low-risk, non-violent inmates should be shifted to strengthening community corrections programs like probation and parole.[42] 

Voters think, on average, that about a fifth of prisoners could be released without posing a threat to public safety.[43] 

62% strongly favor sending fewer low-risk, non-violent offenders to prison in order to keep violent criminals in prison for their full sentence.[44] 

59% strongly favor sending fewer low-risk, non-violent offenders to prison and re-investing in alternatives to incarceration.[45] 

88% agreed that “We have too many low-risk, nonviolent offenders in prison. We need alternatives to incarceration that cost less and save our expensive prison space for violent and career criminals.”[46] 

87% agreed that “Prisons are a government program, and just like any other government program they need to be put to the cost-benefit test to make sure taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.”[47]


[1] BOP, A Brief History of the Bureau of Prisons, http://www.bop.gov/about/history.jsp

[4] FAMM, Correcting Course: Lessons from the 1970 Repeal of Mandatory Minimums.

[6] Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

[7] Bureau of Justice Statistics, http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf

[8] Testimony of Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies concerning Federal Bureau of Prisons FY 2014 Budget Request 4 (April 17, 2013), available at http://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-113-ap19-wstate-samuelsc-20130417.pdf (describing a capacity of 129,000 and a prison population of 176,000, which results in a capacity at 136%, and describing how medium security prisons operate at 44% above capacity and high security prisons operate at 54% above capacity).

[9] Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Pub. L. 98-473 (Oct. 12, 1984).

[10] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 148 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[11] Statement of Michael E. Horowitz, Inspector General, U.S. Department of Justice, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies concerning Oversight of the Department of Justice 8 (Mar. 14, 2013), available at http://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-113-ap19-wstate-horowitzm-20130314.pdf.

[14] Nat’l Ass’n of State Budget Officers, State Expenditure Report: Examining Fiscal 2010-2012 State Spending 52 (2012), available at http://www.nasbo.org/sites/default/files/State%20Expenditure%20Report_1.pdf (showing states spending $53.3 billion on corrections in FY 2012).

[15] U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Bureau of Prisons, Quick Facts, available at http://www.bop.gov/news/quick.jsp (showing 47% of the prison population incarcerated for a drug offense) (last updated April 27, 2013).

[16] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Figure A http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[17] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 12 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[18] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 43 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[19] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 33 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[20] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 37 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[21] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 39 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[22] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 40 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[23] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Prisoners in 2011, http://bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p11.pdf.

[24] Testimony of Charles E. Samuels, Jr., Director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies concerning Federal Bureau of Prisons FY 2014 Budget Request (April 17, 2013), available at http://appropriations.house.gov/uploadedfiles/hhrg-113-ap19-wstate-samuelsc-20130417.pdf.

[25] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 13 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[26] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Figure J http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[27] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Figure J http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[28] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Figure D http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[29] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 12 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[30] Nat’l Ass’n of Drug Court Professionals, http://www.nadcp.org/learn/facts-and-figures.

[31] Nat’l Ass’n of Drug Court Professionals, http://www.nadcp.org/learn/facts-and-figures.

[32] Nat’l Ass’n of Drug Court Professionals, http://www.nadcp.org/learn/facts-and-figures.

[33] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, Table 44 http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[34] U.S. Sentencing Commission, 2012 Sourcebook of Federal Sentencing Statistics, http://www.ussc.gov/Data_and_Statistics/Annual_Reports_and_Sourcebooks/2012/sbtoc12.htm

[35] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 122 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[36] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 123 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[37] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 125, Table 7-2 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[38] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 124, Table 7-1 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[39] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 125-27 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm

[40] U.S. Sentencing Commission, Report to Congress:  Mandatory Minimum Penalties in the Federal Criminal Justice System 146 http://www.ussc.gov/Legislative_and_Public_Affairs/Congressional_Testimony_and_Reports/Mandatory_Minimum_Penalties/20111031_RtC_Mandatory_Minimum.cfm