Over the last three and a half decades, the federal prison population has exploded, from 25,000 prisoners in 1980 to about 219,000 today, an increase of almost 800 percent, according to a report of Department of Justice statistics published by the American Bar Association.
Federal prison facilities are bursting at the seams, with some operating at 39 percent over capacity.
The annual budget of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons is up to about $6.9 billion, according to the report, and the annual cost of incarceration is ranging between $25,000 to $35,000 per inmate, depending on facility and security level.
The resulting strain on the Department of Justice's coffers has taken away funding for other DOJ programs that have been required to take a back seat to funding constant prison expansion.
What's the cause? Well, almost half of the federal prison population consists of drug offenders, for starters.
And in the late 1980s, the federal Sentencing Reform Act changed the way of sentencing in federal cases, with the establishment of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Before the guidelines, federal judges were given a broad range of sentencing discretion, based upon the offense, and handed out sentences on a case-by-case basis within the statutory range.
The guidelines were designed to standardize sentencing by enacting a point system that takes into consideration the conduct and criminal history of the offender and to eliminate parole in the federal system.
The practical effect of the Sentencing Reform Act was to eliminate plea bargaining negotiations, take away most of the judicial discretion in federal sentencing, and hammer federal offenders with long, long sentences, particularly in drug cases.
Keeping in mind that most federal offenses are also state offenses, the feds have the luxury of being able to pick and choose which crimes, and which types of crimes, they have an interest in prosecuting.
Rob a convenience store or liquor store at gunpoint, more than likely, you're going to be prosecuted for a state offense, in state court, and be shipped off to state prison, to serve a portion of your sentence (likely a significant portion if you stick a firearm in someone's face), followed by a period of parole.
Rob a financial institution of federally insured funds, and you're going to be prosecuted in federal court, sentenced under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, and shipped off to federal prison (probably for a much longer time), without parole.
With most other offenses, including drug offenses, it could be either state or federal, depending on whether the feds may have a particular interest in, or specifically a task force in place, for that type of offense at that particular time.
And with most offenses, particularly drug offenses, sentencing in the federal system under the Federal Sentencing Guideline, tends to be a much harsher prospect for the offender.
Last year, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new federal strategy entitled Smart on Crime, designed to examine and reform criminal justice standards in the federal system by re-prioritizing federal prosecution decision-making to focus on more serious crimes, and to reform federal sentencing in an attempt to rectify unfairness in sentencing, address the problems leading to the ongoing cycle of criminality, and alleviate overpopulation in the federal prison system.
Much of this reform has been spearheaded by a longstanding effort by the American Bar Association to examine these issues, and has resulted in a variety of proposed federal legislation under consideration and prosecutorial policies designed to address the current situation.
The federal criminal justice system cries out for these reforms, and has for many years. Here's hoping this talk of reform results in action.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org