Speed Reads

Numbers don't lie

The federal prison population has dropped for the first year since 1980

For the first time since 1980, there were fewer inmates in federal prisons in fiscal 2014 than the year before, Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday. And the 4,800-inmate drop this year is expected to be followed by another 12,000 prisoners over the next two years. Holder attributed the drop to policies aimed at reducing the prison sentences of nonviolent offenders, including his year-old instructions to federal prosecutors to not charge nonviolent drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences.

"This is nothing less than historic," Holder said in his Tuesday speech at New York University School of Law. "To put these numbers in perspective, 10,000 inmates is the rough equivalent of the combined populations of six federal prisons, each filled to capacity." Since federal prisons are overcrowded, the reduction won't lead to any prison closures, he added.

Since the crime rate has gone down in step with the drop in federal inmates, Holder said, this is vindication that "longer-than-necessary prison terms" don't improve public safety, and "in fact, the opposite is often true." There are still 214,506 federal inmates, and about 1.4 million prisoners in state correctional facilities. And the total number of U.S. prisoners probably rose slightly last year, since the population of state prisons went up by 6,300, the first increase since 2009.